QB comparison: Gabbert vs. Newton
This year's class of running backs has been categorized by some as "The Mark Ingram Show." While there's no doubt that the former Heisman Trophy winner has the most well-rounded skill set of any back in the 2011 NFL draft pool, Ingram is far from the only one who can provide immediate dividends.
Whether you're talking about Mikel Leshoure's surprising speed for his size, Ryan Williams' great ability to cut quickly in zones, DeMarco Murray's speed to the edge, or the talent brought by small-school sleeper Taiwan Jones, this group of running backs is deeper than many may believe.
Still, Ingram and Leshoure are likely the two backs ready to do the most in the NFL right away. Let's take a look at the reasons each player will be able to make a difference.
Mark Ingram, Alabama
Mikel Leshoure, Illinois
Between the tackles: Ingram is the best inside runner in this draft class. Not only does he hit the hole with drive, but he also knows how to pick his spots, and he's got a great combination of patience and sudden acceleration. Quick enough in short spaces to find and slip through small gaps in the line, he cuts very well to a gap, and his speed through (not just to) the hole is exceptional. May not be ideally suited for short-yardage and goal-line running at the next level; you'd like to see a bit more power in those situations. That said, his 42 touchdowns are the most in school history. He generally bounces off arm and ankle tackles and doesn't go down easily. He rarely gets tackled for loss and hardly ever fumbles.
Between the tackles: Leshoure is more a quick back than a pure power back. That's surprising for his size, but he doesn't really possess optimal leg drive and doesn't consistently push the pile. Runs with an upright style that will get him tackled early and more easily at the NFL level. More effective on delays and draws than blasts because he accelerates off the snap so well. Good, quick cutbacks and follow-though on zone concepts and slide protection. Tends to go down too easily on first contact; Leshoure is a power-looking back who runs with a different skill set. Frequently drew the advantage of a "man-among-boys" situation in college from a size perspective; that will obviously disappear in the NFL.
Outside running: Does not possess optimal speed to turn outside from the tackle and burst upfield to beat quicker defenders; will generally need blocking help. Turns upfield quickly and has a good second gear once he gets to the flats as a runner or receiver. Faster in a straight line than on a turn. Most of his angular speed comes from the on-field intelligence; knowing when to cut and when to move upfield.
Outside running: Leshoure bounces outside with surprising quickness and acceleration; keeping his speed intact while moving sideways and looking for gaps is one of his best traits. Surprisingly adept at juking defenders out of tackles and using misdirection effectively. Very good at dumping off a zone slide and turning to square his shoulders.
Open-field running: Consistently good and powerful runner with surprising straight-line speed once he hits linebacker level. Has a surprising burst upfield – a definite second gear he can switch into.
Open-field running: Leshoure is especially effective downfield; once he gets up to full speed and is able to put his size behind it, he's a nightmare for smaller defenders to tackle.
Blocking: Willing blocker with solid technique; this attribute makes him a potential every-down back in the NFL right away.
Blocking: Has the size to be a good blocker, and he's willing to do it. But as with a lot of his game, Leshoure needs to learn to get lower and win leverage battles more consistently.
Pass-catching: Good college receiver who could be even better in the NFL; route distribution allows Ingram to avoid his lack-of-turn speed to the edge as a liability and take advantage of his better upfield speed as a primary underrated attribute. Add in his ability to make gains after contact, and Ingram could be a real yards-after-catch threat in the NFL.
Pass-catching: Needs work in this area – Leshoure doesn't yet have a detailed sense of route concepts, but he has good hands and his speed outside could make him a real surprise in this aspect of the position.
Intangibles: Determined player who goes all in for his team and gains the respect of coaches and teammates. His father, former NFL receiver Mark Ingram, is currently serving prison time for fraud and money laundering, but this circumstance seems to have only increased the younger Ingram's determination. Came back from a knee injury in early 2010 to excel down the stretch.
Intangibles: Leshoure suffered a broken jaw in 2008 during a fight with a teammate and lost 17 pounds during recovery. He also was suspended in 2009 for one game for an undisclosed violation of team rules. But by all accounts, he really cleaned up his act in 2010 and that determination paid off on the field.
Conclusion: Frank Gore(notes), who has a similar build as Ingram, has been the 49ers' primary offensive weapon for years. Ingram has the potential to be that same kind of player with his toughness and versatility. He's often compared to Emmitt Smith, and while I don't quite see an equivalent skill set, Ingram is similar to Smith in one way: Smith wasn't always the best in the league at one particular attribute; his value came in his ability and willingness to do everything possible to help his team win.
Conclusion: Leshoure is an impressive player in some respects, but there have to be serious questions about his consistency – he was very spiky in his production, and you always wonder what will happen to players who have been in trouble before when they get NFL money. He also needs work on some crucial steps before he can be an all-around player. The lack of in-line power for his size is somewhat disturbing; it could be a real issue in the NFL, when he'll be asked to make those inside runs and will be dealing with much stronger opponents. The ideal situation for Leshoure might be one in which an NFL team recognizes his speed/size combination as an unusual asset, perhaps getting him down to the 215-pound range.
Comparison: Gore, 49ers
Doug Farrar is a writer for Yahoo's Shutdown Corner blog, and a senior writer for Football Outsiders.