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Doug Farrar

Combine Watch List: The top five running backs

Doug Farrar
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With the 2010 Scouting Combine coming up next week, it's time to take a look at the potential stars at every position in this year's draft class. We'll continue with the five running backs who will be on most minds. Our quarterbacks list can be found here.

C.J. Spiller (Clemson): Spiller is the best of this year's running back class; he seems to have it all. Acceleration, the ability to break tackles, and mobility in space that has to be seen to be believed (check out the SICK double-cut starting at 0:28 in this video). He's also a great return guy, which means that he can step in from Day 1 and contribute in a lot of different ways. He can take the ball out of the backfield on a quick pass or out in the slot or outside as well -- he added 503 receiving yards to his 1,212 rushing yards in 2009. It all added up to a career as the ACC's all-time yardage leader. It seems a bit of a stretch to compare any draft prospect to Chris Johnson of the Titans after the year Johnson had, but Spiller could have similar impact in the right offense. He has the same rare combination of track speed, versatility and surprising inside toughness that Johnson possesses. Spiller is a possible Top 5 pick and an instant difference-maker.

Jonathan Dwyer (Georgia Tech): If Spiller is the best "Lightning" back this year, Dwyer may pace Stanford's Toby Gerhart as the "Thunder." At 5-11 and 235 pounds, he puts some draft experts in mind of former Oregon star Jonathan Stewart(notes), who's currently ripping it up with the Carolina Panthers. You want consistency? How about a guy who gained 1,395 rushing yards both in 2008 and 2009? Speed with that toughness? He's run a 4.4-40. Dwyer is an underrated player with a running style more attuned to the old school than most of the players we're mentioning here, but one need look no further than the New York Giants to see what happens to a team when your power back runs out of juice. That's why Dwyer will be valued, especially if he puts up good times at a Lucas Oil Stadium track thought to be a bit slower than the one at the old RCA Dome.

Jahvid Best (Cal): Best is another jack-of-all-trades who brings Brian Westbrook(notes) to mind. Unfortunately, like Westbrook, Best has had quite the injury history. Hip, elbow, foot, back, concussion ... there are concerns there. Best missed his final four 2009 games, but when he's on the field, he's as dynamic a playmaker as there is in the college game. In 2008, his last full season, Best gained 1,580 yards on the ground -- on only 194 carries, averaging an ungodly 8.1 yards per carry. He's also got the game to make a difference as a receiver, but he might be best-served in a running back committee, which sets him down the draft boards just a bit. But if he stays healthy, he'll be a great sparkplug in the right offense. Here's a guy whose medical may be more important than his 40 time.

Ryan Mathews (Fresno State): Of all the top backs in this class, Matthews may have the best chance of putting it all together with his combination of speed and power. He reminds me of UConn's Donald Brown(notes) (now with the Colts) in his ability to set the pace on offense, gaining 1,808 yards on the ground and averaging 6.6 yards per carry. And before you dismiss his production as the product of weaker WAC opponents, consider his 234 yards against Boise State, 107 against Wisconsin, and 173 against Illinois. The NFL is trending away from the single back dominating an offense, but Matthews may be the best bet for those teams who still want a single-star backfield.

Toby Gerhart (Stanford): There were those who balked at Alabama's Mark Ingram winning the Heisman because it should have gone to Ndamukong Suh (count me among them), and there were those who wondered if Ingram, for all his excellence, was even the best back in the running. In 2009, Gerhart gained 1,871 yards on 343 carries for the Cardinal. While he has the skill set to be a primary back in the NFL, what we know about workload these days might have a team putting him in a rotation. Gerhart may quickly become one of the best red zone backs in the NFL -- last season, he almost had more rushing touchdowns (28) than negative yards (42).

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