With just one running back selected in the first round of last year's draft, the positional value may have hit an all-time low. However, last year's weaker talent pool likely played a role, with many teams waiting to select a ball carrier until the draft's second day (seven top-73 selections).
This year's group is headlined by consensus top-five talent Trent Richardson, but questions remain as to whether value fits the price. 2012's potential three-down backs do not end with Richardson, as a handful of other talents have a legitimate chance at cracking the end of round one to complete playoff-caliber offenses. Factor in that many teams now employ zone-running schemes, and prospects with one-cut ability may be pushed back up the board. There are several of them.
Despite a drop-off in demand, the running back talent has not decreased this year. Let's take a look at the top prospects.
1. Trent Richardson, Alabama
College Experience: Third-year junior
Pro Day #s: 4.48 forty, 1.56 10-yd split, 25 x 225
Style Comparison: Steven Jackson
2011 Stats: 283 - 1679 (5.9) - 21 TD; 29 - 338 (11.7) - 3 TD
Draft Prediction: Browns, No. 4 overall.
Positives: He truly is the best running back prospect since Adrian Peterson. Richardson has a dominant yet subtle hop step that is incredibly effective when evading tacklers near the line of scrimmage. His lateral decisions are made without hesitation after recognizing obstructed lanes. Richardson's balance and low center of gravity may be his most impressive qualities, allowing him to consistently break arm tackles and accelerate quickly after his momentum has slowed. Richardson seemed to press the issue as a sophomore, frequently rushing his opportunities, hellbent on taking every handoff to the endzone. As a junior, Richardson showed improved patience behind blockers, waiting for a lane to open slightly before bursting through it. That perseverance continues at the second level, where Richardson stays inside the numbers without veering toward the sideline to avoid contact unless necessary. For a power back, Richardson is rarely caught from behind, and the way he holds the football high and tight through contact prevents fumbling despite relentlessly fighting for extra yardage. To complete his three-down status, Richardson is balanced in pass pro and delivers solid pop while mirroring oncoming rushers. His receiving talents are sometimes overlooked, but Richardson is comfortable on the edge and in space.
Negatives: At times Richardson tries too hard in the open field, attempting multiple cuts and fakes instead of plowing through smaller defenders or working upfield on a single cut. When facing immediate pressure after the handoff, Richardson struggles to accelerate, needing at least a step or two in the backfield to get his bearings. The thickly-built ball carrier does not have blazing long speed, but Richardson consistently wins by keeping that little separation with short bursts and lateral moves. He takes what the offense gives him, sticking to his assignment, but some may confuse this as lacking "home run" ability. Richardson's postseason work has been limited due to a knee scope.
Outlook: While most believe the position has lost value, it is tough to overlook that Richardson would significantly impact how a defense prepares for his team's offense. Richardson will soon become one of the NFL's top players at his position and produce in all phases from his first pro snap. The balance, burst, and reaction skills Richardson possesses make him an undeniably elite talent.
2. Doug Martin, Boise State
College Experience: Fifth-year senior
Combine #s: 4.55 forty, 1.64 10-yd split, 28 x 225, 36" vertical, 10' broad jump, 4.16 ss
Style Comparison: Jonathan Stewart
2011 Stats: 263 - 1,299 (4.9) - 16 TD; 28 - 255 (9.1) - 2 TD
Draft Prediction: Broncos, No. 25 overall.
Positives: Martin possesses a power-back frame but is quite nimble. His hip and lower-body flexibility along with a strong core help Martin formulate decisive, one-step cuts to weave in and out of lanes while avoiding tacklers. When faced with contact, Martin keeps his legs churning and refuses to go down on the first hit. It's Martin's best quality; his comfort in tight spaces with patience to work behind linemen and cut off of their blocks. Martin gets skinny through creases and prevents tacklers from taking direct angles. Along with his balance, Martin has ideal ball-carrying posture with his shoulders always over his toes in trash. He is fearless one-on-one and prefers to work back inside, a trait you don't see in most college backs, who typically favor the sideline. This is a major asset on outside runs when defenders maintain their edge responsibilities. Many backs will run laterally in these situations, but Martin puts his foot in the ground and locates a lane quickly with power. His open-field wiggle is subtle, but underrated.
Negatives: Martin does lack outstanding burst from a standstill, one that punishes a tackler instantly after his momentum is stopped. Although Martin is a reliable receiver, he loses momentum after the catch, especially when forced to adjust to throws. Other than tough running, lower-half balance, and occasional stiff arms, Martin lacks a wide array of moves and overall flash to his game. At times Martin seems to get too patient in the backfield, especially on counter plays when he is forced to outrun backside pressure. He has return experience, but straight-line speed is not his foundation. Instead of making multiple cuts, Martin prefers to stick with instinct and vision while grinding out tough yards.
Outlook: Only one running back was selected in last year's first round, and many believe that should remain the case this season. However, I firmly believe Martin is a first-round talent, and he is the No. 18 overall player on my big board. He is the only other guaranteed three-down back in this draft, and Broncos coach John Fox has a history of preferring those types of runners. The "Muscle Hamster" is poised to produce in multiple phases as an NFL rookie.
3. Chris Polk, Washington
College Experience: Fourth-year senior
Combine #s: 4.57 forty, 1.65 10-yd split, 31.5" vertical, 9'3" broad jump, 4.21 ss
Style Comparison: Frank Gore
2011 Stats: 293 - 1488 (5.1) - 12 TD; 31 - 332 (10.7) - 4 TD
Draft Prediction: Packers, No. 59 overall.
Positives: Richardson and Martin included, Polk possesses the best combination of patience and vision in this class. His comfort behind linemen is evident, as he hesitates in soft areas while weaving and gliding between lanes. This forces defenders off their angles, always adjusting to Polk's movements. Despite his smooth style, Polk can deliver pop, bulling through second-level tackles or in the open field. He has a power back's mentality in short yardage, keeping his eyes up to find slivers of space. Polk effectively maintains distance from defenders on long runs, rarely getting caught from behind and frequently cutting runs back inside for extra yards. He excels alongside the quarterback in the shotgun formation, with seamless cuts on draws or as an in-space receiver. Polk has reliable hands at every level and runs routes with more strength than many wideouts, staying on his line while absorbing physical defensive backs from the slot or the backfield. Even for his one-speed game, Polk breaks plenty of arm tackles while keeping a strong base and consistently falling forward.
Negatives: Polk would be a better back if he lowered his pad level. His upright style helps with vision, but his shoulders are rarely over his toes unless he is bracing for contact. Even through the hole Polk stays high, exposing the football and losing balance and strength to break more tackles. He is unable to make something out of nothing and needs space to work with. Polk's patience is largely an asset, but there are instances when it causes him to get caught from behind while waiting for his lane to appear. Despite being an excellent receiver, Polk whiffs on too many protection assignments. This was a glaring weakness at the Senior Bowl. Polk also showed up overweight in Mobile, but has since worked to change that, dropping nine pounds since January. The lighter frame may help Polk hit the edge more quickly and beat linebackers on stretch runs.
Outlook: Polk can be an NFL three-down back if he improves in pass protection. His silky-smooth running style is unique and may turn off evaluators that prefer quick-twitch runners with elite burst. But Polk makes it work. Some accused Polk of a poor Senior Bowl, but the fact is that is not the kind of situation in which he'd ever excel. The more comfortable Polk is with his blockers' timing, the more successful he will be. I expect Polk to take a bit longer to produce than other backs on this list, but his receiving skills will help him earn an early role.