At this time a year ago, we were arguing over whether one USC running back would go No, 1 overall and another would go in the top 10. Two months later, Reggie Bush fell to No. 2 and LenDale White dropped completely out of the first round.
Selecting running backs high has become a secondary need on most teams' lists, especially since so many teams have been able to locate a back that fits their system in the later rounds or with undrafted free agents.
However, this year the number of teams looking for fresh legs in their backfield outweighs the number of top-rated prospects available. The Cleveland Browns, Houston Texans, Green Bay Packers, New York Jets, New York Giants, Baltimore Ravens and even the Detroit Lions are in the market for a running back on Day 1 of the draft.
The main targets of their desire have an interesting blend of size, speed, pass-catching skills and versatility. The top tier, like the quarterback position, comprises just two players, but there is a solid nucleus of 10 or so prospects that can fit into the first three rounds based on the blocking scheme/ground attack preferred by teams still in need of a back past the first round.
There are also a number of mid-round type backs that should have very productive workouts at the scouting combine or pro days to help drive up their value. These include Eldra Buckley (Tennessee-Chattanooga), Alonzo Coleman (Hampton), Jackie Battle (Houston) and D.D. Terry (Sam Houston State).
TOP RUNNING BACKS
1. Adrian Peterson, Oklahoma. He's one of the most explosive running backs to enter the draft in recent years, but there is concern about his long-range durability. He has a rare blend of size, speed and power, and he did a much better job of setting up his runs this past season, showing a little more patience following his blocks and then bursting through the hole.
Peterson reads and adjusts to opposing defensive units as he is such a threat to take it to the outside and cut up the field. He's a burner in terms of straight-line speed and is flexible enough to cut back or make defenders miss in the open field. He's also the type of back that can wear down opponents: Over 70 percent of his yards in college came after initial contact.
An average receiver out of the backfield, Peterson lacks natural hands and needs to work on running better routes. He does a solid job of picking up blitzes but will drop his head on some cut blocks and get engulfed by some bigger defenders.
His injury history, including both shoulders and some ankle issues, has some teams concerned about his long-term durability. They feel that he will be great for four to five years and then break down. He has a history of fumbling, too, usually after contact or when he is fighting for extra yards.
Peterson's running style has been compared to Eddie George or Deuce McAllister, but he is likely a step faster in terms of that extra gear or burst in the open field. If he can learn to stay a little lower through the pile and avoid some big hits, he'll be able to avoid far fewer injuries. Still, his talent level is just too much to pass up as he could be a 1,500-plus yards rusher in the NFL.
2. Marshawn Lynch, California. He's an excellent fit for any team looking for an every-down back that can also contribute as a receiver, both out of the backfield or if motioned to the slot.
He runs with great vision and quickness while showing the power to finish off runs, and he shows the keen ability to cut and maintain his current level of speed and then further accelerate in a few strides. He's well-built with the size to be a workhorse back.
Lynch has showed natural hands as a receiver and is a smooth route runner out of the backfield. He does a good job of picking up the blitz but can be overwhelmed at times by bull rushers. He's a great effort player even though he is so naturally gifted, and he's known to be a great teammate and leader by others on the Cal offense.
In his career, Lynch has had a few fumbles, which mainly come because he does not always switch the ball to protect it in the open field. He also mishandled a few on toss or pitch plays, but that comes from looking up field rather than securing the ball first.
Teams that are looking for a dual-threat back may favor Lynch over Peterson, but either way, he is a top-half-of-the-first-round talent that should not last past the Packers if he's still available at No. 16.
3. Tony Hunt, Penn State. This is the best "big" back in the draft in terms of size, power and ability to carry the load (25 to 30 carries per game) on a consistent basis at the next level. He may lack ideal straight-line speed – he'll likely run in the mid-4.5s – but he gets better throughout the game and can pound a defense for four quarters. He had 10 runs of more than 20 yards and a large number of carries that produced 10-plus yards.
Hunt's upright style leads to some big hits and a few forced fumbles, but he is not known or thought of as a fumbler overall, although his hand size (9 inches) is just average. He showed good hands out of the backfield and is tough to bring down, but at times, he gets too high as a runner and can be stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage, which is something that Brandon Jacobs of the Giants was able to overcome between his first and second years in the league.
Hunt's ability to force the pile forward comes from his strong lower body and the fact that he runs hard and with determination. He's not a flashy runner, but by the end of the game, he often ended up with over 100 yards or turned in enough plays to make him the difference maker in most of Penn State's wins the past two seasons.
Hunt needs to lower his pad level on short-yardage carries, and he gets too high and fails to pull away when surrounded at the point of attack. He will try to bounce a few plays outside rather than bull his way to the yards available in front of him. He has the ability to carry 235 to 240 pounds with ease, and his work ethic is desirable for the position, as he will not shy away from playing special teams or even returning kicks.
4. Brian Leonard, Rutgers. This is one of the best pure football players in this year's draft – one that is versatile enough to play either running back or fullback at the next level.
Leonard bulked up for his senior campaign in order to serve as the lead blocker for Ray Rice, but what impressed both scouts, coaches and teammates alike was that, unlike most potential pro athletes, he put his team and its needs ahead of his own after having gained over 3,900 yards of total offense in his first three seasons with the Scarlet Knights.
He has some of the draft's best hands out of the backfield, having totaled 207 career receptions. He was able to bruise his way to yardage in the second half of games, but he also has quick feet to the hole and can bounce a few carries outside for big gains. A good cutback-style runner, Leonard uses very good vision, balance and power to consistently gain yardage. That said, he needs to make better use of his size once he gets into the open field. He has been susceptible to being tackled around the ankles or when defenders grab at his legs.
Leonard proved to be a viable and productive member of the backfield from the fullback position. A very good cut blocker, he can stand his ground firmly when picking up the blitz. He will dip his head at times and lead in without having the full balance of his body weight underneath him, but his effort is never waning.
Leonard's workout numbers will surprise. He has spent the offseason getting his weight back down to the mid-220-pound range while focusing on his explosiveness, speed and quickness in the 40-yard dash and drills. It should not be surprising to see him run in the 4.5 range at the combine.
5. Antonio Pittman, Ohio State. Of the top-ranked running backs, he is on the smaller side, which shows you where today's game is headed when 5-foot-11 and nearly 200 pounds can be thought of as being under-sized.
With the ability to both grind out tough yards between the tackles and effortlessly scoot past defenders when bouncing the play outside, Pittman makes you notice him right away. While he has made a number of big plays, both as a runner and receiver, his overall football smarts and how hard he plays the game jumps out at you the more you watch his game film. He is as tough as any player, college or pro, in terms of ball security, having turned the ball over just once in each of the past two years despite 250-plus touches in each of those campaigns.
Pittman will bang it up the middle and take the yards available to him, and he'll show deceptive speed when he is able to break free in the open field. He has stayed away from major collisions at the point of attack and can be more of a finesse runner than just bull his way when confronted with tight situations.
Used purely as a safety valve with the Buckeyes, Pittman needs work on his route running. He could probably bulk up to 205 to 210 pounds, too. Highly durable at the college level, he did have a serious turf toe problem back in his high school days.
There will be a team that really admires his talents and could draft him higher than expected.