Between today and the beginning of the NFL Combine Thursday, I'm going to list one player per position who I see as having the most riding on their performance. That means multiple updates each day, so keep tuning in.
You'll see a couple of overriding themes with the players I select. Many are underclassmen - as many of them have more to prove to scouts - and many are players with either off-field or medical concerns.
Unlike at quarterback, where Ryan Mallett fit all of these characteristics, I see a potential diamond in the rough at running back with the most to gain (or lose) at the Combine. Hawaii's Alex Green is a senior with no known off-field or medical issues and certainly lacks the name recognition of some of this year's top backs, but I like his combination of size (6-0, 220), burst and hands out of the backfield.
The 2011 class of running backs is a very solid group. There is only one surefire first round pick in my opinion -- Alabama's Mark Ingram -- and two others I see as possibly sneaking into the top 32 (Illinois' Mikel LeShoure and Virginia Tech's Ryan Williams). Because either LeShoure and Williams could leap into the first round conversation with a dynamic showing in Indianapolis, I strongly considered listing them here. I believe entirely too much draft analysis is spent on the top 40-50 players, however. Real scouting begins in the middle rounds and extends into free agency, which is one of the reasons why I'll be watching Green closely.
Consider these three facts.
1. There were 12 running backs selected in the 2010 draft.
2. NFLDraftScout.com currently rates 27 running backs as potential draft picks in 2011.
3. Green is rated 20th and a 6th-7th round pick.
As a junior college transfer playing for the most geographically remote team in the country, scouts haven't seen a lot of Green despite the fact that he led the country with a gaudy 8.2 yards per carry this season. Now, before you dismiss his numbers as a product of the Warriors' dynamic offense, recall that Hawaii's spread attack is pass-heavy, inflating the numbers of their quarterbacks and wideouts, but deflating the production of their running backs. In fact, since former head coach June Jones implemented Hawaii's spread offense in 1999, Green is the first back to ever surpass the 1,000 yard mark. Hawaii's historical struggles running the football go back even further. They haven't seen a 1,000 yard runner in nearly 20 years (1992). Green rushed for 1,199 yards this season.
Scouts were impressed with Green's build and burst at the East-West Shrine Game. Ultimately, however, to remain at running back and not be thrown upon that heap of "oversized running" fullbacks, Green will need to perform well this week in athletic drills. He's been estimated to run in the mid 4.6s. If he runs that slow in Indianapolis, he'd better get used to the idea of blocking -- and that is if a team gives him a shot as a utility fullback.
If, however, he can run in the low 4.5s and show some explosiveness in the jumps and shuttle drills, he'll reinforce the positive impressions he made in Orlando.
I argued that the Combine could prove very important for Ryan Mallett. How he performs in drills and interviews could dictate whether he's a first or third round pick.
The week could be even more important for Green. If he performs well, I could see him being drafted as high as the middle rounds. A poor performance, however, could see him slip right on out of the draft entirely.