!INDIANAPOLIS – Just two years removed from using a pair of early draft picks at the running back position with the 2011 second-round selection of Shane Vereen and the third-round haul of Stevan Ridley, the Patriots seem pretty set with young legs in the backfield.
Ridley has a 1,200-yard season under his belt. Vereen had an impressive three touchdown effort in the postseason after having the longest reception in the AFC during the 2012 regular season. And undrafted rookie Brandon Bolden made the team last fall and appears to offer in intriguing backup option.
So for a team with just five picks in the 2013 draft, running back may not be the highest priority.
According to NFLDraftScout.com there is no sure-fire first-round running back in this year's class among of a group of 25 prospects the site grades as potentially getting picked in the seven-round draft.
Alabama junior Eddie Lacy (5-10, 220) is one of the top names in the group and is likely to be the first back taken in April coming off a national championship season for the Tide in which he rushed for 1.322 yards (6.5 avg.) with 17 touchdowns.
Lacy is not as highly thought of as former Tide first-round backs Mark Ingram or Trent Richardson, but the junior may be impressive enough to be the first back taken this spring. He isn't working out at the Combine this week due to a hamstring injury suffered working out in January.
Lacy considers himself a Vikings fan and idolized Adrian Peterson, but seeing as Minnesota doesn't need a running back he emphasized that he, "wouldn't mind playing in anyone's offense."
Two other underclass entries with possible second-round potential are North Carolina's Giovani Bernard (5-10, 205) and Oklahoma State's Joseph Randle (6-0, 200).
Bernard is a versatile athlete who can impact a game as a runner, pass catcher and returner. After tearing his ACL in 2010, he returned with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, including 1,228 yards last fall. He also hauled in 47 passes and averaged 16.4 yards per punt return despite missing two games with a knee injury.
Durability is a concern for Bernard, but clearly versatility is his strength.
"The biggest thing for me is being able to do everything," the possible second-round pick said. "You don't want to limit yourself to just being able to run the ball or catch the ball. You want to be able to do everything, from run-blocking to pass-blocking to running the ball, catching the ball, punt returning, kick returning. You want to be able to be that guy. It's just a matter of having the opportunity to get on the field. And the more you can do, the more opportunities you're going to have."
In the middle rounds of the draft are two of the bigger name senior running backs. Wisconsin's Montee Ball (5-11, 215) considered entering the draft a year ago after he led the country with 1,923 yards and 39 touchdowns. Ball was a victim of an assault prior to his senior season but still churned out 1,830 yards and another 22 touchdowns to finish his career with 82 scores.
Even with crazy career production, Ball is intent on selling himself to NFL teams in Indy this week.
"Accountability, durability and consistent," Ball says of his strengths. "I'm extremely consistent. You can count on me when I have the ball in my hands — 924 carries, only two fumbles. So I do a great job of protecting the football. I score touchdowns. You can count on me to make the play and be there for you."
Not the fastest back in the draft, Ball says he's heard comparisons with another back who didn't shine in any specific way other than production but ended his career in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
"I hear a lot and I've been watching a lot of tape ... I feel like I run a lot like Curtis Martin," Ball said. "Nothing really stands out — like speed or strength, but we're very balanced overall and very consistent."
!South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore (6-0, 220) can't work out at the Combine after suffering a second ACL tear to end his collegiate career, but remains a possible mid-round prospect as he rehabs the injury. He said he spent more than four hours being checked out medically on Friday, and his surgically repaired right leg clearly displays a number of scars as well as major muscle atrophy.
Lattimore had 38 touchdowns in his three seasons despite the two major injuries. His best year came back when healthy in 2010 when he when he had 1,197 yards and 17 touchdowns. But he says that teams seemed positive about his current rehab process and he's talked with Willis McGahee to get advice in the process of getting drafted while coming off a major knee injury. Lattimore also takes motivation from Peterson's return to the NFL last season.
He certainly hasn't allowed his tough injury luck to get him down.
"It's a blessing to be here, no doubt. I would not take this opportunity for granted, that I have to be at the Combine," Lattimore said. "I just think about guys who are less fortunate than me, guys who would kill to be in my shoes, even with the injury. That's what keeps me going, that's what keeps me motivated, knowing that people would kill to be in my shoes right now."
And despite the injuries, Lattimore isn't worried about the next time he takes a hit.
"No, not at all. I mean, I've been hit 2,000 times, and that (an injury) happened twice. I'm not even thinking about it," Lattimore concluded.
The biggest back in the draft is Michigan State junior Le'Veon Bell (6-2, 230). Bell actually dropped about 15 pounds for the Combine in an effort answer questions about his speed with a hoped-for 4.4 in the 40. Bell was a workhorse for the Spartans last fall with 1,793 yards on 382 carries with a dozen touchdowns. But he also caught 30-plus passes in each of the last two seasons.
While wanting to prove his NFL-worthy speed, Bell is also emphatic that his size is a positive not any type of hindrance.
"It's definitely an advantage – falling forward and getting tough yardage. I take pride in that. At Michigan State this past year I had a lot of yards after contact, and that's something I take pride in. That's something I want to continue to do.
"A lot of teams are interested in big guys, and I'm happy for that."
While the Patriots would seem to be set in terms of smaller, change-of-pace backs thanks to Vereen as well as the potential to re-sign free agent Danny Woodhead, it's interesting to note the number of those types that will be available later in the draft. NFLDraft scout lists eight different backs who could be picked in the later rounds of the draft who measure in at 5-9 or shorter.
That list includes the first player ever invited to the Combine from FCS school Stony Brook, Miguel Maysonet (5-9, 209). The Puerto Rico-born Maysonet transferred to Stony Brook from Hofstra after that school dropped its football program. He rushed for 1,900 yards and 21 touchdowns last season as the runner-up for the Walter Payton Award after going for 1,600-plus and 15 scores in 2011, finishing with 1,000 yards in each of his three seasons with the Seawolves.
Maysonet says he's drawn comparisons to Ray Rice all his life, but knows his numbers at a lower level of competition will be doubted.
"I know I have to prove to people that I belong here," he said, though he relayed that 30 of the 32 NFL teams saw him scouted him last season.
Maysonet's 158 yards and a score against Syracuse last fall help to make that argument. That included a 76-yard touchdown that was the No. 8 play of the year on ESPN and helped really put the small-school phenom "on the map."
One area of the running back group that could intrigue New England's personnel department are the fullbacks. The Patriots pursued a number of veteran fullbacks last offseason with Josh McDaniels return to the team and it wouldn't be out of the question to add a versatile fullback and special teamer type late in this year's draft even with the team's limited number of picks.
NFLDraftScout.com lists nine fullbacks who could be drafted this spring, although none earlier than the fourth round. All measure between 6-0 and 6-3 and weight between 230 and 269 pounds. That certainly fits the mold of a guy who could be a blocker, short-yardage runner and special teams option.
!The highest rated of the group is Florida State's Lonnie Pryor (6-0, 230), a potential late-round selection. Pryor was a 2,200-yard tailback out of high school but was converted fullback for the Seminoles. He's athletic enough to run with the ball or catch it – and likely to play special teams as he did a lot as a freshman at FSU – but also can be a powerful lead blocker.
"I always look at myself as a running back but at Florida State I played fullback. So I kind of tried to be the best blocker I could be and tried to be the No. 1 fullback. I think it worked out pretty well," Pryor said. "The fullback position is kind of going away and not too many teams use the fullback. But just my versatility of just doing everything I do might help bring it back and help it out."
That versatility might just be the thing to entices a team like the Patriots with a varied offense to take a chance on a guy like Pryor. Regardless, the 2013 crop of running backs seems to offer something for all tastes. From undersized scat-backs to bell-cow lead backs or versatile jack-of-all-trades, the group makes up for its lack of elite star power with a bit of variety.
Prospect beauty, after all, lies in the eye of the draft pick holder.