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Running backs on Patriots radar

The first day of the NFL Scouting Combine showcased a lot of the top offensive linemen and running backs in this year's draft. While some of the linemen admitted the Patriots had talked to them, it's the running backs who appear to really be peaking the team's interest.

With Corey Dillon and Kevin Faulk both over 30-years old and no young running back waiting in the wings to take over the reigns, there is a good chance the Patriots will upgrade the running back position this offseason. During the first day of the NFL Scouting Combine, a number of running back prospects were on display and said the Patriots were one of the teams interested in them.

This year's crop of running backs looks to have four sure-fire first round selections but after those four, the talent level drops off.

"It's not a really deep class of running backs," Kevin Colbert, the Director of Football Operations for the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers said. "This class is a little top heavy. After the first few guys, you are going to get some serviceable players but I wouldn't say this class is as deep at running back as it has been in recent years."

If Colbert's assessment of this year's class is correct, the Patriots might be thinking about spending a first round draft pick on a young runner. Reggie Bush is the cream of this year's running back crop but he's expected to be the first player selected by the Houston Texans. With New England holding the 21st selection in the upcoming draft, having the dynamic Bush suit up for the Patriots is something fans can only dream about.

After Bush, three productive college running backs figure to go in the first round of the draft. Memphis' DeAngelo Williams, Minnesota's Laurence Maroney and Bush's teammate at USC, LenDale White, are all battling to be the second back taken after the Heisman Trophy winner.

Right now Williams – the only senior out of the top four backs – looks to have a slight edge. At 5'9 and a rock-solid 217 pounds, Williams' stature and running style have been compared to his idol growing up – Barry Sanders.

"Pound-for-pound I think Barry Sanders is the best running back that ever stepped on a football field," Williams said.

Like his boyhood idol, trying to tackle Williams is like trying to tackle a spinning top on skates. His quick feet and powerful running style helped Williams set an NCAA record with 7,337 all-purpose yards while at Memphis. Williams also led the nation with 1,959 rushing yards this past season despite the fact that Memphis was relegated to playing with their third string quarterback for most of the season.

Williams had an outstanding week at The Senior Bowl and his attitude and demeanor impressed scouts almost as much as his physical ability as a runner. With a strong performance at the combine, Williams could cement his spot behind Bush on most draft boards, meaning the Patriots would have to trade up in order to get him.

At 235 pounds, White is a power back with great vision. He holds USC's all-time record with 52 rushing touchdowns and when you consider some of the running backs that played for the Trojans, that's an impressive statistic.

The more explosive Bush overshadowed White but his 1,302 rushing yards and 26 touchdowns in a backup role has NFL scouts drooling over White's potential as a feature back at the pro level. There's a chance White could be on the board when the Patriots select but word from the Combine is the Packers, Cardinals and Browns are all interested in acquiring the former Trojan.

The most likely candidate for New England if they decide to go running back in round one is the game-breaking Maroney. He's rushed for 2,812 yards and 22 touchdowns over the past two seasons while splitting time with Marion Barber III and Gary Russell.

Some people question Maroney's ability to carry the load in the NFL since he only weighs 207 pounds. However, he proved at Minnesota that he can run hard between the tackles and also score from anyplace on the field. Maroney had a long run of 80 yards as a sophomore and a 93-yard scamper this past season as a junior. Maroney's big-play ability would be a nice compliment to the rugged Dillon and the pass-catching Faulk.

Of the four top prospects, only Bush spoke on day one of the Combine. Williams, White and Maroney are expected to address the media on Friday so check back with for more information on these top prospects.

A number of prospects projected to be drafted in the second-to-fifth round area did take the podium on Thursday and many of them have already spoken with representatives from the Patriots.

UCLA's Maurice Drew and LSU's Joseph Addai – both of who expect to be drafted in the late-first/early second round area each were enthusiastic when asked about the possibilities of being in New England next season.

Drew (5'8, 207 pounds), who was an explosive return man as well as a productive running back at UCLA, said the Patriots are one of a handful of teams who are looking at him as a running back and not just a kick returner.

"A lot of teams are looking at me just as a return man," Drew said. "A few teams have expressed interest at having me play running back as well because of my versatility and the Patriots are one of those teams."

Because Drew played at UCLA and has the same slippery running style as Bush, he was often compared to his USC counterpart.

"My goal is to be the first pick in the draft," Drew said. "No disrespect to Reggie Bush, he's a great player, but I believe in my abilities and being the first player selected is what I'm shooting for but if there is sort of a bright spot with not going that high it's that you have a chance to play for a playoff-caliber team like New England."

Addai (5'11, 214 pounds) played the waiting game at LSU and it finally paid off in his senior season. He began his career at LSU backing upDomanick Davis and LaBrandon Toefield. However, Addai was so talented that Nick Saban – the Tigers' head coach at the time – moved him to fullback just so the freshman could get on the field.

When starting running back Alley Broussard was injured early in the 2005 season, Addai stepped in and rushed for 911 yards and nine touchdowns. Besides having the versatility to play both running back and fullback, Addai is also very adept at catching the ball out of the backfield, something that should help his draft stock.

When asked if he minded playing fullback in the NFL, Addai didn't hesitate with his answer.

"I'll play some fullback," he said with a smile on his face. "I look at it like when you go outside as a little kid and you just want to play. I just want to play football so I'll play fullback if they want me to.

"As far as playing for the Patriots, I would be honored to play for them. I have a lot of LSU teammates already there so I would feel right at home in New England."

Addai is a player whose stock could rise in the weeks following the Combine. Not only is he versatile, Addai's fast having been clocked under 4.4 in the 40-yard dash while at LSU.

"My goal is to run a 4.4 here but I'm hoping for a 4.3," he told the media.

Two players projected to go in the middle rounds of the draft – Virginia's Wali Lundy and Texas Tech's Taurean Henderson – talked with the Patriots at The East-West Shrine Game and both players hoped they would get another chance to meet with the team again at the Combine.

Lundy (5'11, 214 pounds) plays bigger then his listed weight. He's a strong inside runner who scored 43 rushing touchdowns in his career at Virginia. Lundy played receiver all the way up until his junior year in high school and then rambled for over 2,000 yards as a senior in his first season at running back.

Lundy told the media that teams looking to score touchdowns should consider drafting him.

"I'm money on the goal line," the confident Lundy said. "If you want to score touchdowns, just put me in the game."

Henderson (5'9, 204 pounds) played in Texas Tech's pass happy run-and-shoot offense but still put up some solid rushing numbers for the Red Raiders. While Henderson is adamant he can be an every-down back at the NFL level, his biggest contribution will probably be as a pass catcher a la' Kevin Faulk.

Henderson caught 303 balls in four years at Texas Tech, including 98 as a freshman. With his ability to catch the football out of the backfield Henderson should, at the very least, have a decent NFL career as a third-down back.

Arizona's Mike Bell said he hadn't spoken with the Patriots yet but he had a meeting scheduled with the team later in the day on Thursday.

Other running backs expected to address the media on Friday who could peak the Patriots interest are Jerious Norwood (Mississippi State),Leon Washington (Florida State), Wendell Mathis (Fresno State), P.J. Daniels (Georgia Tech), Dontrell Moore (New Mexico), Cedric Humes (Virginia Tech) and Gerald Riggs, Jr. (Tennessee).

While it's too early to tell which position the Patriots will target in round one of the draft, it became clear after the first day of the NFL Combine that the team is showing interest in a number of different running backs. With more backs scheduled to speak on Friday – most notably Williams, White and Maroney - we should have a better handle of just how serious the Patriots are about taking a running back with their first selection. Either way, many more running backs than offensive linemen said on Thursday they spoke with the Patriots, so it's becoming clear the team is looking to add some young blood to their offensive backfield in 2006.

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