INDIANAPOLIS - The Patriots selected Laurence Maroney with the 21st overall pick in last year's draft to be their running back of the future. Despite battling a rib injury late in the year, Maroney showed flashes of being a great back during his rookie season, finishing the year with 745 yards rushing and six touchdowns.
The likelihood of the Patriots adding another young running back increased on Friday when The Boston Globe reported Corey Dillon asked for his release from the Patriots so he can announce his retirement. Meanwhile, The Boston Herald had a different take on the situation, reporting that Dillon asked for his release but may still want to play in 2007. Then Dillon's agent, Steve Feldman, said on WSKO in Providence that the Patriots have agreed to release the veteran running back next week.
Without Dillon, New England would be left with only 30-year old Kevin Faulk,Heath Evans and unrestricted free agent Patrick Pass behind Maroney. In the last 24 hours, drafting a running back has become a much greater priority for the Patriots due to the reports coming out about Dillon's future.
There are two running backs projected to go in the first round of this year's draft: Oklahoma's Adrian Peterson and Cal's Marshawn Lynch. After those two, there is a group of backs with very different styles who could go anywhere between the second and sixth rounds. There are power runners Michael Bush (Louisville) and Tony Hunt (Penn State), along with more versatile backs like Brian Leonard (Rutgers), Darius Walker (Notre Dame) and Gary Russell (Minnesota). Any one of those players would be a nice addition to a now thin New England backfield.
One of the most intriguing prospects in this year's draft is Russell (5-10, 225). Maroney's former teammate at Minnesota, Russell ran for an amazing 1,130 yards and 18 touchdowns as a backup two years ago. Once Maroney left early for the NFL, many believed Russell would explode in the Gophers run-oriented offense. It wasn't meant to be, however, as Russell was declared academically ineligible, ending his college career.
He addressed his off-field troubles with the media on Friday.
"After the bowl game, I was declared ineligible," Russell said. "We appealed to the school two or three times and they said no. I went to a junior college in Minnesota called Inver Hills and took eight credits there. Then I appealed again after that and they said no again. I came back home and tried to go to Columbus State, but the classes at Columbus State wouldn't transfer for a year, so I decided the best thing was to move on.
"It was just me being lazy. I was the first one in my family to go to school so I didn't have the guidance of people telling me I'd have all this extra time. It's my fault but I've grown up a lot since then and I think that's coming across to the people I've talked to."
Russell was projected to be a better pro prospect than Maroney but his year off now has some people comparing him to Maurice Clarett. Although, Russell appeared to be in good shape at the combine and expects to do well in all the drills.
"If I were Gary Russell, I would come to the combine with no body fat and in the best shape of my life," Mike Mayock of the NFL Network said. "He's an interesting player because he has talent but he's only played one season in a two-back system, so that's not a lot to go by. He needs to have great workouts and be ready to tell teams why he flunked out of school and didn't get back in some place else. This is a big couple of days for a guy like Russell to show teams he's focused and ready to play football."
Russell and Maroney remain close friends and actually spoke on Friday. The two started thinking about a reunion after hearing the news that Dillon may be on his way out of New England.
"Yeah, we talked about it today," Russell said with a smile. "It would be nice to get that two-headed monster going again."
Walker (5-10, 206) is one of the most versatile backs in this draft. Under Charlie Weis at Notre Dame, He rushed for 3,429 yards, while also catching 109 passes in the Irish's pro-style attack. Walker ended his career at Notre Dame with 4,065 all-purpose yards.
"I really believe that I'm one of the best backs coming out," Walker said. "I really do. I really believe that there's not another back that's as versatile as I am. The system that I come from only makes me better."
Walker said he has no problem sharing time with a back like Maroney and that he actually embraces the idea.
"New England could be a place," Walker said. "The great thing about my position is that a lot of teams nowadays are going to this two-back system. The Colts did it well. The Bears did it well. The Saints are doing it well. So I believe that's a good thing for any running back coming out."
Hunt (6-1, 238) is a bruising inside runner in the Dillon mold. His 654 carries set a Penn State record, so he's proven that he can take a pounding. Hunt doesn't have great speed but he's very effective between the tackles and is always moving the pile forward.
After Penn State's Outback Bowl win over Tennessee, Hunt told reporters that the Volunteer defenders didn't want anything to do with tackling him in the fourth quarter. That's something Hunt takes pride in.
"I think we did that a lot this year," Hunt said about making defenses quit. "Pound the ball out and get into the fourth quarter. If we get a little lead and just run the ball, run the clock out and control the game. I think when you can do that, it shows you're just flat-out better than the other team, if you can just run the ball and dominate them like that. It's more making a statement than just running the ball. It's making a statement that you're tougher than them."
Bush (6-2, 243) only played one half of football last year before fracturing his right leg. He was granted a medical redshirt but decided to enter the NFL draft instead of returning to Louisville. In 2005, Bush ran for 1,143 yards and a school-record 23 touchdowns.
A big, powerful back with quick feet, teams were concerned about Bush's weight heading into the combine because he had ballooned up to 260 pounds shortly after his injury. Bush put all those worries to rest by showing up to Indianapolis looking lean and mean. Once considered a high first round selection, Bush could wind of being a steal in this draft.
"I think I kind of got lost after I was injured," Bush said. "But good players bounce back and stay positive. I think I should go in the first round. That's my opinion based on what I did in college."
When asked about his ability to find the end zone, Bush said his eyes get big once he sees the goal line.
"When I'm inside the 25, I look at the end zone and feel like that's my home," Bush said. "That's where I belong."
The wildcard is Leonard. A one-time Heisman Trophy candidate at Rutgers, Leonard took a back seat to Ray Rice last year and helped lead the Scarlet Knights to their best season in school history. His versatility and team-first attitude has Leonard shooting up draft boards.
"Leonard is a really good player," Mayock said. "He catches the ball very well and can do a lot of things to help an offense. He's not a great blocker. I think he could be a fullback in a West Coast offense but he's not a bulldozer when it comes to blocking. I've been very consistent in saying that he's a second round draft pick. That's a strong second round pick. I see some have him going in the first round but that's a little high and others have him as a fourth or fifth round player and those are people who haven't watched enough film."
Leonard bulked up to 238 pounds during the season because he was asked to play more fullback. However, he's now down to 226 pounds as he attempts to show NFL teams that he can be an every-down running back at the pro level. One thing's for sure, he certainly sounds like a Patriot.
"If a team needs me to be a straight-ahead blocking fullback, then that's what I'll do," Leonard said. "I don't feel that using me that way would be getting the best out of me, but if the team wants me to do that, I'll do it. All I care about is helping a team win and I'll do whatever it takes to help them. I think I'm at my best when I get out in the flat, get the ball in my hands and make some people miss. But again, if the team wants me to be a straight-ahead blocking fullback, I'll do it to the best of my ability."
With Dillon's exit from New England now looking imminent, there's a good chance the Patriots select a running back on the first day of the draft. Teaming one of these young runners with Maroney would give New England a formidable backfield for years to come, and prolong the career of the Patriots most valuable commodity: Tom Brady.