4. David Wilson, Virginia Tech
College Experience: Third-year junior
Combine #s: 4.49 forty, 1.57 10-yd split, 41" vertical, 11' broad jump, 4.12 ss
Style Comparison: Ahmad Bradshaw
2011 Stats: 290 - 1,709 (5.9) - 9 TD; 22 - 129 (5.9) - 1 TD
Draft Prediction: Jets, No. 47 overall.
Positives: There is a lot to like about Wilson's punishing, old-school style. He hits to harm the tackler while pedaling his feet through contact. Wilson's burst from a standstill is among the best in this draft at any position, generating plenty of power even in the first few steps. He is always fighting, relentlessly refusing to go down while carrying multiple defenders. When a linebacker or safety is clearly blocked at the second level, Wilson surges through the lane with exceptional acceleration and has outstanding straight-line speed, especially for someone of his thickness. Wilson produced highlight-reel runs with tremendous improvisational skills when switching fields on stretch plays. All Wilson cares about is gaining extra yards, never worrying about what it takes to get them.
Negatives: As much as Wilson's game is easy to fall in love with, plenty of questions remain. He lacks instincts of a refined runner, meaning his choices on where and when to cut are often evident to defenders. These transitions are not seamless, sometimes requiring extra steps when breaking off his line or stretching runs out too far because of indecision. Wilson's improvisational skills show up in highlights, but there are just as many occasions that he loses yards due to running in an unintended lane or not trusting his blockers. With the clock winding down while trailing, Wilson tries to take every run to the house, forcing the issue rather than letting yards come to him. He frequently fails to hold the football in the proper arm, leading to fumbles. Wilson looks uncomfortable as a receiver in space without the ball and will likely be limited to quick-hitters in the passing game. He also lacks a true wiggle, utilizing a slow lateral hop but mostly winning on contact. I also worry that Wilson's battering-ram running style will wear him down more quickly than other backs. Wilson tends to drop his head on contact, and ultimately be may be too physical, if that is possible.
Outlook: I understand why some evaluators deem Wilson this year's No. 2 back. There is certainly a lot to like. However, too often I see Wilson running on his own terms, flowing to lanes of his choosing rather than where the play is designed. Wilson's decision making is not crisp, but his tremendous burst can make up for wasted steps. If Wilson can somehow improve his instincts through experience, he could be the total package of speed and brute force.
5. Lamar Miller, Miami
College Experience: Third-year sophomore
Combine #s: 4.40 forty, 1.53 10-yd split, 33" vertical
Style Comparison: Clinton Portis
2011 Stats: 227 - 1,272 (5.6) - 9 TD; 17 - 85 (5.0) - 1 TD
Draft Prediction: Buccaneers, No. 36 overall.
Positives: A one-cut homerun hitter, Miller burst onto the scene as a redshirt sophomore with electrifying breakaway runs. If a crease appears, Miller is off to the races and flashes wiggle in the lane in one-on-one situations. For a younger back, Miller rarely stretches runs to the sideline longer than he should, working back inside to find lanes. He shows patience at the second level when finding soft areas in trash, even dipping his shoulder to absorb punishment. Miller possesses impressive change-field ability with more than enough speed to start on one sideline and end up on the other with little wasted movement. Some may argue that it is natural awareness, but Miller knows when to run at a defender and when to run away. Once Miller breaks from the pack, he's gone.
Negatives: Miller leaves too many yards on the field, rarely gaining yardage once his momentum is stopped in the backfield. Not only does he lose behind the line of scrimmage, but Miller fails to beat first contact versus linebackers filling the open lane. Speed is Miller's best asset in the open field, but when he attempts to make a tackler miss his lateral hop is more of a jump than a subtle step. He possesses soft hands, even occasionally adjusting to back-shoulder throws downfield, but was rarely used in the passing game at Miami. Miller cannot pass protect and lacks instant fluidity after the reception.
Outlook: I dislike comparing players who attended the same college, but Miller's frame and running style mirror fellow former Hurricane Clinton Portis'. Miller will succeed most in a zone-heavy, clear-crease scheme that will hide his lack of wiggle due to successful blocks at the second level.
6. Isaiah Pead, Cincinnati
College Experience: Fourth-year senior
Combine #s: 4.47 forty, 1.55 10-yd split, 33" vertical, 9'8" broad jump, 4.32 ss
Style Comparison: Pierre Thomas
2011 Stats: 237 - 1,259 (5.3) - 12 TD; 39 - 319 (8.2) - 3 TD
Draft Prediction: Bengals, No. 83 overall.
Positives/Negatives: Pead was good for one big play per game at Cincinnati. His special quality is the fact that those plays all started in different ways. Pead runs comfortably between the tackles with multiple cuts off the backs of downfield linemen while keeping his distance from defenders by running into open areas. However, Pead does not possess enough of a burst or refined footwork from a slower pace for it to be a foundation of his game. He frequently split out wide as a receiver at the snap in college, adjusting to poor throws while flashing toughness to challenge tacklers head-on or utilizing lateral hops in trash to switch lanes. Even as a returner, Pead has deceiving long speed with an awareness to run to unoccupied portions of the field. This vision is a great asset in space or behind blockers, where Pead showcases a knack for cutback runs.
Outlook: My biggest question is whether Pead's style will translate to NFL competition because he doesn't play with tremendous explosion. Pead's skills did stand out during Senior Bowl week, and I will admit to having similar questions about DeMarco Murray last season. Pead shows effort in blitz pickup, but his wiry frame limits him. I doubt he will be a consistent every-down player, but Pead certainly looks capable of producing in a committee-type rotation.
7. Bernard Pierce, Temple
College Experience: Third-year junior
Combine #s: 4.49 forty, 1.60 10-yd split, 17 x 225, 36.5" vertical, 10'3" broad jump, 4.28 ss
Style Comparison: Ryan Grant
2011 Stats: 273 - 1,481 (5.4) - 27 TD; 3 - 52 (17.3) - 3 TD
Draft Prediction: Steelers, No. 86 overall.
Positives/Negatives: Pierce will be limited to a zone-style NFL scheme because he is a one-cut runner without agility, and requires a full head of steam before hitting the hole. Pierce's cuts are crisp and he breaks a high volume of tackles with exceptional lower-half balance, but he lacks wiggle thereafter. With the broken tackles come a lot of hits, and Pierce certainly has suffered his fair share of injuries. His cuts are sudden and he deflects off tackles even early in his runs, but there is no real burst to Pierce's game and his long runs in college came only when he reached full speed against weak competition. Low pad level certainly helps Pierce's cause and he played behind what was regarded as a fairly porous Temple offensive line, although his stat line might tell you otherwise.
Outlook: The Steelers run plenty of outside zone, so Pierce could be a middle-round fit in Pittsburgh. I was not expecting Pierce's high 4.4 forty time at the Combine, but it shows just how fast he can get after building speed. Injuries are a major question, Pierce lacks any hint of passing game value, and he is somewhat limited in his style, but he has a chance to shine in the right system.
8. Michael Smith, Utah State
College Experience: Fourth-year senior
Pro Day #s: 4.33 forty, 1.48 10-yd split, 23 x 225, 40.5" vertical, 10'6" broad jump
Style Comparison: Kendall Hunter
2011 Stats: 114 - 870 (7.6) - 9 TD; 16 - 181 (11.3) - 2 TD
Draft Prediction: Chargers, No. 149 overall.
Positives/Negatives: For a small runner, Smith stays between the tackles with confidence and maturity. He is always moving upfield, making decisive cuts in the style of a larger, straight-ahead runner. Despite a fearless approach that is uncommon for a back his size, Smith's momentum is often stuffed on first contact, but he spins away effectively for the extra yard. Smith regularly fights off contact downfield if tackled high, and even breaks a few, which is noteworthy for his stature. The best part of Smith's game is his lateral agility off of a single cut with excellent anticipation to stay away from a would-be tackler's grasp. His multiple slight hops in the lane help avoid contact but rarely does he overuse the move. Smith is a trustworthy runner, sticking to his blocks at all levels. He has plenty of speed and reaction quickness to work around backfield penetration, and lowers his shoulder on contact when necessary.
Outlook: Smith may never be a three-down NFL back and even played second fiddle to Robert Turbin in college, but his skills are certainly electric. For a compact runner with his outstanding workout numbers, Smith has a remarkably refined style. He will be a tremendous role player on third downs and dynamic change-of-pace back. Smith has a great opportunity to be one of the surprises of the draft a few years from now by outperforming his draft selection.