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Specialty rankings: Sheets top third-down back

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In Part VI of our position analysis, we take a closer look at the nation's top third-down backs, slot receivers, possession receivers and zone-blocking scheme linemen. The NFL is becoming more and more of a specialized league, and these positions all are gaining in importance every year.

Third-down backs

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Kory Sheets (No. 24)
(Jeff Roberson/AP)

1. Kory Sheets, Purdue (5-foot-11, 208 pounds)
2. Mike Goodson
, Texas A&M (6-0, 208)
3. Devin Moore
, Wyoming (5-10, 187)
4. Keegan Herring
, Arizona State (5-10, 203)
5. Antone Smith
, Florida State (5-8, 191)
6. Marcus Thigpen
, Indiana (5-9, 185)
7. Bernard Scott
, Abilene Christian (5-10, 200)
8. Curtis Brinkley
, Syracuse (5-9, 208)
9. Tony Dixon
, Kentucky (5-8, 203)
10. Maurice Wells
, Ohio State (5-9, 196)

Sheets looks like the draft's top third-down back and has even more value because of his ability to contribute on special teams. He's an explosive, high-cut runner who catches the ball well out of the backfield and gets up to speed quickly. He should immediately help an NFL team in the pass game. Goodson possesses an explosive first step and showcases an ability to break big plays at the line of scrimmage and be effective on swing passes out of the backfield. He had a falling out last year at Texas A&M but showed he has the hands and elusiveness to become an ideal third-down back.

Herring never had the type of breakout campaign many expected, but he possesses the burst and lateral mobility to create big plays in the run game. He lacks ideal size and is too easily tripped up, but he's dangerous once he breaks into the open field. Speedsters Smith (4.37), Moore (4.36) and Thigpen (4.28) will add an instant home run dimension to their offenses at the next level.

Possibly the most talented back in the group might be Abilene Christian's Scott. But his long list of character concerns, which include being kicked off his high school football team and hitting his coach while playing at Central Arkansas, far outweigh his physical talents. If he can get his head on straight, he has the quickness, vision and, most important, the hands to become a factor in both the run and pass game.

Slot receivers

1. Mike Thomas, Arizona (5-8, 195)
2. Deon Butler
, Penn State (5-11, 182)
3. Quan Cosby
, Texas (5-9, 196)
4. Sammie Stroughter
, Oregon State (5-10, 189)
5. D.J. Boldin
, Wake Forest (5-11, 220)

Thomas looks like the draft's premier slot receiver as he exhibits the burst, quickness and body control to consistently separate underneath. He has a strong build and is dangerous after the catch. Most importantly, Thomas knows how to beat press coverage off the line and can consistently create plays vertically. Butler was the most productive of the Nittany Lions wideouts the past three years and does a great job tracking the ball down the field and adjusting to throws. He displays an explosive first step with the deep speed to get behind defenses. He's also a much better route runner than given credit for and was virtually impossible to cover in the East-West Shrine Game.

Cosby and Boldin are thickly built receivers who display a real physical quality in their games. Neither has the speed to get behind defenses, but they do a nice job getting out of their breaks cleanly and picking up yards after the catch. Stroughter had his share of tribulations at Oregon State, but he still put together two productive seasons. He seems like one of those receivers NFL teams will overlook because he's undersized and possesses only average speed. However, he does a great job setting up corners, changing speeds and consistently separating on all levels of the field. He does a nice job fighting for the ball, and you hate to count out a kid who has fought through so much.

Possession receivers

1. Patrick Turner, USC (6-5, 223)
2. Mohamed Massaquoi
, Georgia (6-2, 210)
3. Ramses Barden
, Cal Poly (6-6, 229)
4. Marko Mitchell
, Nevada (6-4, 218)
5. Aaron Kelly
, Clemson (6-5, 204)

Turner is the next king-sized receiver to come out of USC, following in the footsteps Mike Williams and Dwayne Jarrett. However, even though most NFL teams view him as a far less impressive prospect, Turner could be the one who has the most productive NFL career. He understands his limitations and does a great job gaining an initial step and using his body to shield defenders. He has long arms, big hands and consistently plucks the ball away from his body. Massaquoi reminds me of former Bulldog WR Reggie Brown and looks destined for the same type of No. 2 role in the NFL. Massaquoi does a nice job running sharp routes and possesses the body control to adjust and get the ball. He's the type of receiver who does everything well but lacks the straight-line speed to gain respect from cornerbacks vertically.

Small-school prospects Barden and Mitchell are tall, well-built receivers who are considered “striders” down the field. Both struggle getting up to speed quickly and aren't real sudden out of their breaks. However, they pick up speed as they go, and the farther they get down the field, the tougher they are to cover. Kelly has the best ball skills and coordination of the group and is used to plucking the ball with defenders draped over him. He does a nice job high pointing the ball down the field and uses his body to shield defenders underneath. But he's slow out of his breaks and will struggle beating press coverage in the NFL.

Zone-blocking scheme offensive linemen

1. Max Unger, Oregon (6-5, 310)
2. Jamon Meredith
, South Carolina (6-5, 304)
3. Xavier Fulton
, Illinois (6-4, 302)
4. Lydon Murtha
, Nebraska (6-7, 306)
5. Gerald Cadogan
, Penn State (6-5, 309)
6. Blake Schlueter
, TCU (6-3, 290)
7. A.Q. Shipley
, Penn State (6-1, 304)
8. Andrew Gardner
, Georgia Tech (6-7, 304)
9. Augustus Parrish
, Kent State (6-4, 303)
10. Jon Cooper
, Oklahoma (6-2, 291)

Unger is a former offensive tackle who exhibits a rare type of quickness and lateral mobility for the center position. He does a great job getting out of his stance and into the second level. Unger possesses the type of body control and coordination to not only hit a moving target but cut them cleanly out of the picture. He's one of the nation's top-rated centers for any offense, however we think he would be an ideal fit in a zone-blocking scheme. Gardner is one of the toughest evaluations in this year's tackle class because he was asked to block strictly in the Yellow Jackets' triple-option offense as a senior. But he did a great job executing cut blocks at the line of scrimmage and at the second level and looks like he could be a natural fit doing the same in the NFL.

Centers Shipley and Cooper are both undersized linemen who lack the length and overall girth to consistently drive defenders off the ball. However, both are smart, tenacious blockers who display the athleticism to get out on the edge and cut down defenders in space. Shipley, in particular, does a nice job snapping and stepping quickly and consistently finding a linebacker downfield to seal out of the play.

The National Football Post (www.nationalfootballpost.com) is a unique and premier online source of insight about all sides of football featuring professionals with experience in all facets of the NFL.

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