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NFL Draft Prospects: Running Backs

Best of the Bunch

Adrian Peterson, Oklahoma (6-1, 218)

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Peterson is one of the top pure running backs to enter the draft in a long time. He has a scary combination of power and speed. In my opinion, Peterson and Calvin Johnson are the two players who should be battling to be the first pick in the draft. While he had some injury problems at Oklahoma, Peterson is flat-out dominating when healthy. As an 18-year old freshman, Peterson was compared to Herschel Walker – who many believe to be the greatest college player of all-time. Peterson is a back who can carry the ball 25-30 times a game and has the speed to go the distance on any play. If the Browns pass on this stud at No. 3, I would be stunned.

Tony Hunt, Penn State (6-1, 233)

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Strengths:** Hunt is a big, powerful runner who punishes defenders that try and tackle him. He runs extremely hard and is tough to bring down in the open field. Hunt hits the hole hard and is a strong runner between the tackles. He's also an effective cutback runner. Hunt has good vision as a runner and his football speed is better than his timed speed. He really drives the pile backwards and has a nose for the goal line. Hunt is basically a piledriver with speed. He also has good hands, although Penn State doesn't throw a lot of passes to its running backs.

Weaknesses: Hunt doesn't break off a lot of long runs. He's more like Curtis Martin where he may not have a lot of 80-yard runs but Hunt will pile up six and seven yard gains all day long. Hunt was able to get to the outside in college but did most of his damage between the tackles. He'll have to prove in the NFL that he has the speed to get to the edge. Hunt doesn't stand out in any particular area but he does virtually everything well.

Overall: Hunt is one of the top two or three backs available this year in my opinion. I think he would be a perfect fit in the Broncos offense because of his power and ability to cutback. Hunt is a patient runner who wears down defenses as the game goes on. He's not a flashy player but more like Corey Dillon where he's deceptively quick for his size and will abuse tacklers all game long. Hunt will probably get drafted in the second or third round but he has the physical ability to be a productive starting running back in the NFL right away. Patriots fans better hope the Broncos don't get their hands on this kid because he could become an instant star in that system.

Draft Projection: Second/third round

Marshawn Lynch, Cal (5-11, 215)

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Strengths:Lynch is a straight-ahead runner who has quick feet in the hole. He runs with power once he gets into the open field. Lynch is a very good receiver out of the backfield and can even split out wide and play some receiver. He's a tough inside runner but also has the speed to turn the corner. Lynch didn't run well at the Combine but he's faster in pads than he is on a track. Lynch always keeps his legs moving and has the ability to turn nothing into something. His running style is similar in a lot of ways to that ofLaurence Maroney**.

Weaknesses: Lynch isn't very elusive in the open field. He'll run people over at times but doesn't have a lot of moves to get by defenders. Lynch never really carried the full load at Cal, so some have concerns about his durability. He has quick feet but at times can dance too much before hitting the hole. Lynch can stand to get better as a blocker but overall, he's a solid prospect.

Overall: Lynch has a lot of physical ability, although I think he's being overvalued a little in this draft. I see him more as a late-first round selection and I would take Hunt over him because I think he's more of a complete back. Lynch would fit best in a west coast offense that can take advantage of his receiving skills. I think Lynch is a good player and will have a solid pro career. However, if he came out last year, he might have gone in round 2, which in my mind makes him a reach in the top 12-15 picks this year. In other words, expect him to go 12th overall to the Bills.

Draft Projection: First round

Going Down

Antonio Pittman, Ohio State (5-10, 208) – After breaking him down on tape, I thought the same thing about Pittman as I did watching him play on Saturday's the last two years at Ohio State. He goes down way too easily for a big-time running back. If you had a nickel for every time Pittman broke a tackle in college, you would probably be in debt.

Pittman isn't very physical, has trouble running between the tackles and even when he does get into the open field he rarely goes anywhere because the first guy brings Pittman down with ease. I'm not sure why he is all of a sudden climbing up draft boards. I think that may be an Internet sensation because just watching Pittman play in games anyone can see that he's an average back. Then when you put on his tape and compare him to other running backs, he slips to below average.

Pittman did have a lot of production at Ohio State and that can't be overlooked. However, I think he benefited from being on a great college offense. Two of the Buckeye receivers could get drafted in the first round, their quarterback won the Heisman Trophy and the freshman running that played behind Pittman (Chris Wells) was better than he was. As a matter of fact, the presence of Wells was one of the reasons Pittman decided to come out as a junior. Despite having back-to-back good seasons for the Buckeyes, it was likely that Pittman would continue to lose carries to Wells, much like he did at the end of last year. I think Pittman will be a career backup in the NFL at best but some team will most likely vastly overpay for his services on draft day.

Michael Bush, Louisville (6-1, 243) – Bush isn't on here because he was injured. His injury isn't expected to be career ending and he showed up at the Combine in shape, so I'm not penalizing him for getting hurt. I'm penalizing Bush because he reminds me of Ron Dayne.

The first thing I look at with a big back is how they use their size. Both Jerome Bettis and John Riggins had quick feet for big men but they would rather run over defenders in the open field than try to juke them out. Dayne, on the other hand, is a 250-pound running back who runs like he's 205. That's the problem I have with Bush. Instead of using the size he has to his advantage, Bush is too busy dancing in the hole and trying to fake defenders out once he gets into the open field. Big backs who run that way usually have a short shelf life in the NFL. Has anyone seen T.J. Duckett lately?

Bush does have some strong points and if the right coach can get him to run harder, I think he could become a good pro back. Bush has impressive speed for his size and a nose for the end zone. However, until he realizes that he weighs 250 pounds and starts playing like it, Bush will struggle in the NFL much like Dayne and Duckett have throughout their careers.

Sleepers

Kenny Irons, Auburn (5-10, 205) – Irons isn't necessarily a sleeper per say but I think he's getting overshadowed by guys like Pittman and Bush. In my opinion, Irons is the fourth best back in this draft, and should go early in Round 2.

Irons is explosive through the hole and he has good acceleration in the open field. He runs with power and makes defenders miss. Irons' greatest attribute is his ability to cut. This guy can cut on a dime and that makes him tough to bring down in space. Irons is also an effective receiver out of the backfield. He sets up his blocks well and hits top speed quickly once he gets in the clear.

Irons runs with that high knee action, reminiscent of Roger Craig. Actually, Irons' overall game is similar to how Craig used to play. He's not that big but Irons is tough for his size, hard to bring down in the open field and a very good receiver. Irons battled injuries all through his senior season and that caused his production to drop. However, he's now 100 percent healthy and Irons is going to be a steal for some team in the second round.

If he goes to a team that's shaky at the running back position, Irons could be a darkhorse to win Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. Keep an eye on this kid. The more I see of him, the more I like his chances of being a productive starting running back in the NFL. Last April I was high onJerious Norwood as a second or third round selection that could come in and make an immediate splash in the NFL. This year I would put Irons in the same category.

Alonzo Coleman, Hampton (5-9, 208) – Coleman was an extremely productive running back at Hampton where he topped the 1,000 yard mark in each of the last four seasons and finished his career with an astonishing 64 touchdowns. I don't care what level of competition a guy is playing against those are numbers impressive.

Coleman looks like he was chiseled out of stone and is a very powerful runner. He has a lot of strength in his lower body, which makes Coleman tough to bring down in the open field. Coleman is a big play guy and has the speed to score from anywhere on the field. He averaged 5.6 yards per carry during his career at Hampton.

Coleman is a small school sleeper to watch for on draft day. He's a late-round prospect but when you combine his physical skills and on-field production, Coleman is an intriguing player. Not very many players in this draft ran for 4,648 yards and scored 64 touchdowns in college, so Coleman at least deserves a look in the later rounds.

Possible Patriots

Hunt - Hunt would be a perfect complement to Maroney. His bruising running style would help replace Corey Dillon and make Hunt valuable near the goal line. If he were still on the board in the third round, the Patriots should really consider scooping him up.

Irons - It's hard predicting running backs to the Patriots because there's going to be a run on that position in the second round and currently, New England doesn't own a second round pick. However, if they do their share of wheeling and dealing on draft day and end up with more selections, Irons is a definite possibility in Round 2. His overall skill set will fit in nicely on the Patriots offense.

Lorenzo Booker, Florida State (5-10, 191) - Booker is a guy we all love here at PFW and we wouldn't mind seeing him wearing a Patriots uniform next season. The problem is the versatile Booker's draft stock is on the rise and it's doubtful he'll get out of the top half of Round 2. So, once again, the Patriots would have to trade down and acquire a second round pick in order to get Booker. Booker has the chance to be the next Tiki Barber, where he begins his career as a third down back before becoming the primary ball carrier for the team that selects him.

Brian Leonard, Rutgers (6-1, 227) - I hate to sound like a broken record but Leonard is another one of those backs who looks to be going in the high-second round area. Leonard is intriguing because he can do a lot of different things for an offense. He wants to be an every-down back in the NFL and while I'm not sure he can pull that off at this point, Leonard is valuable because he can run, block and is an excellent receiver out of the backfield. Some are projecting Leonard to go the first round. I would be shocked if that happened, although he's a strong second round pick because of his versatility, which includes playing special teams.

Darius Walker, Notre Dame (5-10, 206) - Walker probably won't be an every-down back in the NFL but he's a guy who does a lot of things well. Walker is a solid blocker, effective on draw plays and one of the best receiving backs in this class. Actually, when you watch him he almost looks like a younger version of Kevin Faulk.

If the Patriots don't go after one of the few highly rated backs early on in the draft, Walker is a definite mid-round possibility because of his versatility, intelligence and work ethic.

Dwayne Wright, Fresno State (5-11, 228) - Wright is a big guy who can play that RB/FB hybrid position similar to Heath Evans and Patrick Pass. The former Bulldog is a powerful runner who wears down defenses between the tackles. He doesn't have great speed but is a versatile player who can do a lot for a team.

Wright came back in 2006 after tearing the patellar tendon in his knee to rush for 1,462 yards and 11 touchdowns as a junior. He also caught 29 passes last season for Fresno State. Because he's not very fast, Wright will probably never be an every-down back in the NFL. However, his ability to block, play special teams and be a short-yardage back makes him a possibility late in the draft.

Justise Hairston, Central Connecticut State (6-1, 222) - Hairston is an interesting late-round prospect. He began his career at Rutgers but Hairston transferred before his senior year because he was going to be stuck behind Ray Rice and Brian Leonard. Hairston's decision proved to be a wise one. For Division 1-AA Central Connecticut State (Scott Pioli's alma mater by the way), Hairston rambled for 1,847 yards and 20 touchdowns, while averaging 6.7 yards per carry in 2006.

Hairston runs with power and does a lot of damage between the tackles. He's not overly fast but he gets positive yardage on a consistent basis. Hairston is one of the most intriguing late-round prospects in this draft because he had enough talent to be recruited by a Division 1 school and then dominated lesser competition in his one year as a starter. Don't be surprised if the Patriots take a shot on Hairston late in the draft or as a free agent. He could really become a pleasant surprise for some team.

Overall Position Analysis

There are some good backs available this year but overall, the position is weak. Peterson is a stud and Lynch will likely be a first round selection as well. After that, it's a crapshoot. I like Hunt, Irons and Booker as players who can come in and help a team right away and become starters down the road. Chris Henry (Arizona) is supposedly shooting up draft boards but I think he's vastly overrated. I'm not high on Pittman or Bush, and the ceiling for mid-rounders like Walker, and Brandon Jackson (Nebraska) appears to be low. There are some decent late-round prospects in Wright, Coleman and Hairston but overall this running back class is lacking in marquee players.

Note: PFW will be doing a draft blog, starting on Wednesday, April 25. On the days leading up to the draft we'll have updated rankings and mock drafts in the blog. On draft day, we'll be posting our thoughts on everything draft related, including all the bad picks made by the Washington Redskins. Fans are welcome to participate by posting their opinions as well. The blog will be updated non-stop during the draft, so be sure to check it out. A link to the blog will be on Patriots.com, so everyone will be able to access it easily.

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