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Running backs run deep in draft

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Oregon running back Jonathan Stewart. AP Photo.

INDIANAPOLIS – Generally speaking, in the NFL size does matter. But many of the notable running back prospects in the 2008 draft class are spending plenty of time this week at the Combine trying to prove that size isn't always the defining factor for a ball carrier.

By most standards, the running back talent available in April's draft is going to be one of the more fertile positions. The overall talent and depth of backs is led by a strong list of junior entries, topped of course by Arkansas two-time Heisman runner-up Darren McFadden (6-2, 210).

But the Razorbacks star is just one of many underclassmen that bolstered the position. According to NFLDraftScout.com's pre-Combine positional rankings juniors make up the top five prospects in the draft, as well as seven of the top eight spots. The young players help make the position, along with offensive tackle, one of the deeper areas of the draft.

"That group was really enhanced by the juniors that came out," acknowledged Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert. "Like the tackles I think you can get a running back in the first three rounds of good quality."

McFadden leads the crew. On the heels of Adrian Peterson's impressive, record-breaking rookie season the McFadden hopes his draft-day value puts him near the very top of the selection process.

"A lot of people try to compare me to Adrian Peterson and say we have similar running styles," McFadden said Friday at the Combine. "He went in as a rookie and did great things, and that's something I feel like I'm going to try and do as a rookie also."

While McFadden does have a couple off-field issues that have raised questions about his overall character, the 4,500-plus yards and 41 touchdowns he's run for over the last three falls are more than enough to rank him among the top overall prospects in the draft.

"I feel like I am the best player in the draft," said McFadden, who plans to run the 40 at the Combine. "I can do a lot of different things. I feel like I'm a very versatile player. I can go out there and line up at receiver, I can line up in the backfield and block, line up back there and run, I can throw a pass if you need me to. If I had to, I could play defense."

After McFadden the impressive group of four more juniors that could end getting taken in the first round includes Oregon's Jonathan Stewart (5-10, 235), Illinois' Rashard Mendenhall (5-10, 225), Arkansas' Felix Jones (5-10, 207) and Texas' Jamaal Charles (5-11, 200).

Stewart could very well be the most complete back in the draft thanks to his impressive combination of size, power and speed. Just ask him.

"I would describe it as pretty rare," Steward said when asked about his running style, one that he compares to that of Cleveland's Jamal Lewis. "You don't really see a player my size at this position being able to do the things I can do. I'm explosive. I have good lateral movement as well. I have great speed as well. Put those things together and it can be something great."

Mendenhall could also lay claim to elite back descriptions thanks to a similarly complete package.

"I definitely feel like it's a very good group of running backs, especially with a lot of the junior class coming out," Mendenhall said. "As to where I fit in, I definitely feel like I am up toward the top. I feel like I am a complete back -- a guy that can make you miss and a guy that can take it the distance as well -- a big guy and a third-down back and that's why I feel like I am towards the top as a player."

Jones is an interesting story due to the fact that he shared the load with McFadden at Arkansas despite the possibility that he could very well have transferred and started at almost any other school in the country. Despite playing in the shadows so to speak, Jones made his own name by rushing for more than 1,100 yards last fall with 11 touchdowns with a ridiculous 8.7-yard average.

Jones said he never even considered transferring and actually liked working with McFadden.

"Absolutely not. Once I committed to Arkansas, I was a Razorback for life," Jones said. "I look forward to creating a name for myself. At the same time, I did kind of like it, because we were a tandem."

After the top group of backs comes a slew of potential second and third rounders who are under 6-feet and right around or under 200 pounds. That list includes East Carolina's versatile Chris Johnson (5-11, 197), Rutgers' Ray Rice (5-8, 199), West Virginia's Steve Slaton (5-9, 197) and Michigan's workhorse Mike Hart (5-8, 206).

Many of the smaller backs chose to point to the likes of Emmitt Smith or Maurice Jones-Drew as examples of guys of lesser builds who've had success in the NFL.

"Emmitt had great feet and used his line better than anybody I've ever seen," Rice said. "He used every part of being small as an advantage. He was very smart."

Rice even thinks being smaller can be an advantage at times playing in a game among giants.

"I see a lot of small backs where it's an advantage," said Rice, who expects to run a Combine 40 in the 4.4 range. "You have big o-linemen, 6-6, and once you get behind them before you are 2 or 3 yards down field defenders can't see you. Being small can be an advantage. I run bigger than my size."

Slaton uses another former Cowboys star as his motivation.

"I had a chance to meet Tony Dorsett in Connecticut last year and he said I remind him of himself. We're about the same size," Slaton said. "After taking some advice from him I feel confident."

Cal's Justin Forsett (5-8, 190) is another small back whose stock is rising in the later to middle rounds.

There are also some bigger backs that could be had in the mid and later rounds, including another riser in Tulane's Matt Forte (6-1, 220). Forte's agent was passing out bound presentations touting his client as "the most complete running back prospect entering the 2008 NFL Draft. His size, speed and versatile running style make him the prototypical NFL running back."

Forte had a breakout season last fall with 2,127 yards and 23 touchdowns, an explosion he attributes to a change in offense from the spread to a West Coast system.

Another intriguing mid-round guy is the nation's leading rusher from 2007, Central Florida's Kevin Smith (6-1, 212). Smith's 2,567 yards and 29 touchdowns have to open some eyes, regardless of his level of competition or lack of publicity.

Beyond the skilled ball carriers, there are a few interesting fullbacks in this year's draft class. West Virginia's Owen Schmitt (6-2, 247) tops the group as a throwback, prototypical run-blocking machine who started out playing Division III football before walking on with the Mountaineers. Other projected fullbacks like LSU's Jacob Hester (5-11, 230) might have more versatility on offense, but Schmitt is true man's man at fullback. Slaton credits his fullback with much of West Virginia's rushing success.

"He meant a lot. Without him, a lot of the success I had, I wouldn't have had," Slaton said. "I know with him I don't have to worry about the first guy making a tackle because I know he's going to block him. I don't remember him missing a block."

Schmitt proclaims to love blocking and hitting defenders, something he's shown over the years by bending many of his own facemasks. "Faulty steel," he says with a smirk, "no big deal."

"That's all part of the game. I think people kind of get away from the fact that that's the fun stuff. I think blocking is fun," Schmitt, a self-proclaimed former fat, pudgy kid said at the Combine sporting a clean-cut Mohawk. "That's just my mentality. I just like it. Running the ball is awesome, too. But I'll let the fast guys do that."

And even though he knows many NFL teams don't carry a player with Schmitt's skill-set, he's simply looking for a chance in the league.

"It's a struggle because there is not that much need and want for (prototypical fullbacks). I'm not really looking for huge expectations," Schmitt said. "I just want a chance. That's all I'm here for."

A similar sentiment could be heard from most of the backs at the Combine this week, regardless of their size, skill-set or projected draft status.

With the overall depth of the draft class even a team like the Patriots – with a young back in Laurence Maroney, a veteran backup in Sammy Morris, a change-of-pace/third-down guy in Kevin Faulk and a versatile fullback in Heath Evans – could find irresistible value on draft weekend. Whether it's a potential tag-team partner for Maroney, a fullback to pave his way or a future replacement for Faulk, it could very well be worth keeping an eye on the impressive available talent at running back when the Patriots are on the clock come April.

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