|In his only full season at Virginia Tech, David Wilson was named ACC Player of the Year. (US Presswire)|
Whether it is evolution or revolution, NFL offenses are changing how they view certain positions. The emphasis on passing has devalued running backs, made fullbacks all but extinct and raised the bar for tight ends who hope to make it.
While this may take the luster off this year's draft prospects in those positions as a whole, there are very intriguing individual candidates, although almost all of them are running backs.
Easily topping this list is Alabama's explosive Trent Richardson, who broke the records of Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram, the man he replaced in Tuscaloosa. Richardson's abilities justify comparisons to the Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith. That is not blasphemy, it is reality.
Yet, in an age that reveres passing and catching far more than running, even an Emmitt play-alike is rated no higher than fourth overall by NFLDraftScout.com, and most others.
Richardson is the only sure first-round selection in a good group of running backs that includes Boise State's Doug Martin and Virginia Tech's David Wilson. With an excellent depth of talent, as many as six running backs could be taken in the first two rounds and a dozen in three rounds.
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Conversely, no fullbacks are projected in the first four rounds and only one tight end, Stanford's Coby Fleener, seems to have a shot at being taken in the first round.
Here is a closer look at the backs and tight ends in this year's draft. They are listed with school, height, weight, and projected round of selection (*denotes underclassmen):
1. *Trent Richardson, Alabama, 5-feet-9, 228, 1
Richardson doesn't have world-class speed, much the same as Emmitt Smith, and the comparison is apt. So forget the so-called controversy about his speed, which was quantified with 40-yard times of between 4.45 and 4.61 seconds at his pro day (Smith's was 4.8 seconds). Richardson explodes into and through defenders with sudden power. He is wide, low and runs with patience and control while looking for a lane. But if there isn't daylight, he is willing and able to create it by initiating contact like a short, stout Adrian Petersen. Richardson is a better pro prospect than former Heisman Trophy winner Ingram (No. 28 pick in 2011 by the Saints). Last season, Richardson became Alabama's full-time starter for the first time and carried 283 times for 1,679 yards and 21 touchdowns to break Ingram's single-season school record. Richardson is an efficient blocker and excellent pass catcher who had another 338 yards and three touchdowns receiving last season. He was the only hint of offense in the BCS championship game, scoring the lone touchdown, a 34-yarder, in the Tide's 21-0 victory over LSU. Richardson, who finished third in Heisman Trophy voting, is proud and responsible for two daughters, ages three and five, from a longtime romance in his Pensacola, Fla, hometown.
2. Doug Martin, Boise State, 5-9, 223, 1-2
Upon closer review, scouts are beginning to think Martin's athletic ability is closer to his intense attitude than they first believed. Martin's commitment and attitude always stood out, even on the most disciplined and well-coached team in the nation. He is a between-the-tackles, no-nonsense bowling ball of a runner with good quickness and just enough speed to be dangerous. He rushed for 1,260 yards in 2010, 1,299 last year and finished with 617 carries for 3,431 yards and 43 touchdowns in his college career. He is an adequate receiver who grabbed 67 passes for 715 yards and another four TDs. Martin's strength and tackle-breaking ability help as a kick returner; he averaged 28.4 yards per return. His combine performance showed that his statistics weren't those of a so-called overachiever. He proved his athleticism with a 40-yard time of 4.55 seconds, vertical jump of 36 inches and 28 reps with 225 pounds in the bench press. He is a weight-room animal who challenges teammates to keep up with him. In the spring of 2009 he obliged a request to help at defensive back, but he was able go back on offense when the season started.
3. *David Wilson, Virginia Tech, 5-10, 206, 2
Wilson's best credentials are as a track star. NFL teams probably wish he spent one more year in college refining his football skills. After starting only one full year in college, Wilson elected to jump to the NFL. Pro scouts will want to see improvement in pass blocking, receiving and hear why he questioned coaches in college on play calling. But Wilson has shown he can run. Last year he collected 1,709 yards on 290 carries with nine touchdowns. That earned him ACC Player of the Year honors and he was named second-team All-American. Wilson doesn't have much of a change of pace as he seems to run as fast as he can all the time. On the field, he has not consistently shown the explosive first step expected of a track star who triple jumped 52 feet, 6¾ inches. But he did show that ability at the combine with a 40-yard time of 4.49 seconds, a vertical jump of 41 inches and an 11-foot broad jump. While he learns his trade at running back, especially blocking for the QB, he can help immediately as a major threat on kickoff returns. In his senior year at George Washington High in Danville, Va., Wilson set school records with 2,291 yards rushing and 35 touchdowns.
4.*Lamar Miller, Miami (Fla.), 5-11, 212, 2
After doing well in his only full year as a starter, Miller has decided to enter the draft although many scouts think he needs to learn a little more in school. But with an eye on the cash and a concern over getting beat up in college, he is convinced it is, as teammates call him, "Miller Time." He is a tough runner with deceptive second-gear acceleration, both of which serve him well on kickoff returns. In his only full season as a starter last year, Miller finished second in the ACC with 1,272 yards rushing on 227 carries with nine touchdowns. The third-year sophomore's career included 1,918 yards, 335 carries, 15 touchdowns, 28 catches for 181 yards and 15 kickoff returns for 376 yards and his most memorable college play, a dazzling 88-yard return for a touchdown against Ohio State in 2010.
5. Chris Polk, Washington, 5-11, 215, 2
To say that Polk has deceptive speed is an understatement. Not only did defenders misjudge, or just miss, him often enough that he rushed for 4,049 yards in his career, but that career itself seemed to skip a year somewhere. Polk enters this draft as a senior, which took a lot of people by surprise as it was widely believed that his 2008 freshman year became a medical redshirt season because he played only two games before getting injured. But on and off the field, Polk was deceptively fast in college as he enrolled in January 2008 and graduated in June 2011. In between he rushed for more yards than anyone in UW history except Napolean Kaufman and left with what some people believe is another season of eligibility, had he so opted. Polk is an outstanding runner between the tackles, but that does not define him because he seems to do a little better than expected in every phase of the game. He lacks elite speed, evidenced by a 40-yard time of 4.57 at the combine (4.45 best at his pro day), but his functional speed did take him more than 4,000 yards. Last year he caught the ball so well (29 for 324) that scouts were reminded he played some wide receiver in high school. Although he seems to run a bit upright, he makes it work with an uncanny sense of balance and excellent lateral agility.
6. Isaiah Pead, Cincinnati, 5-10, 197, 2
After destroying two-time Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin's 35-year-old high school record by rushing for 2,204 yards (Griffin had 1,787) and 39 touchdowns as a senior at Eastmoor Academy in Columbus, Ohio, Pead's abilities were hardly a secret as he entered college. Using exceptional bursts of straightaway speed, he kept right on running at Cincinnati, where he started 26 of his 44 games, carried 545 times for 3,288 yards (6.03 per carry) and 27 touchdowns and caught 87 passes for 721 yards. If that wasn't enough to convince scouts, he put on a show of footwork at the Senior Bowl, including punt returns of 60 and 38 yards. At the combine he validated his athleticism with a 40-yard time of 4.47 seconds and a vertical jump of 33 inches. Toughness is not a forte as Pead prefers to elude rather than hit, but can run through arm tackles. His versatility as a runner, receiver and returner should be considered.
7. *LaMichael James, Oregon, 5-8, 194, 2-3
Even for those who witnessed his blur-quick footwork and the where-the-heck-did-he-go elusiveness, there is much more to James than meets the eye. He has internal toughness and self-reliance that may have been destined before he was born, which is when his father was killed, or during a youth where his mother was usually gone and he was raised by his grandmother until she died when he was a junior in high school. Then what? Then he basically took care of himself those last two years at Liberty-Eylau High School in Texarkana, Texas. By the end of a dazzling 2010 season at Oregon, when he finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting, people still did not know the full measure of this young man. Instead of declaring for the NFL Draft, he returned to address unfinished business -- a degree in Sports Business to be exact, which he was granted in December 2011 along with Academic All-American honors. James also became Oregon's only two-time consensus All-American as he led the nation with 150.42 yards rushing a game and ended his career with a school-record 5,929 all-purpose yards. James, who finishes 40 yards in less than 4.45 seconds and can leap vertically 35 inches, has been compared to every successful small, quick, elusive back in NFL history, yet his size concerns NFL scouts. Understandable, but his toughness never should be in question.
8. *Bernard Pierce, Temple, 6-0, 218, 3
Just as when he was lightly recruited out of high school, Pierce is difficult to evaluate now because his results seem to add up to more than the sum of his abilities. He has decent explosion and quickness, as demonstrated with his 36½-inch vertical jump and 10-foot-8 broad jump. But his functional football speed does not seem to match his decent 40-yard time of 4.49 seconds. He runs a bit upright and his body seems tight rather than agile. Pierce also had several lingering physical issues, including a bad hamstring and concussion, and started only 24 of 34 games. Still, he managed to carry the offense in 2011, rushing 273 times for 1,481 yards and 21 touchdowns and was second in the nation in scoring with 162 points. He finished his career with 3,570 yards rushing (5.38 per carry) and 54 touchdowns. Pierce does have a large frame and good toughness and the more of that he can assert at the next level, the better because he is probably not going to dazzle NFL defenders with his speed and elusiveness.
9. Robert Turbin, Utah State, 5-10, 222, 3-4
Stout and well muscled, Turbin is a powerful-looking physical specimen with arms as strong as most legs. But his legs and feet are another issue, not a great sign for a runner. He sat out 2007 with an injured foot and missed 2010 because of a torn ACL. But before and after those injuries he looked every bit the part of a future NFL star. In 2009 he set school records with 1,296 rushing, 418 yards receiving and 18 total touchdowns. After returning in 2011 from knee surgery, he broke his '09 record by rushing for 1,517 yards and 19 touchdowns and catching 17 passes for 171 yards and four more scores. He runs with good initial explosion (36-inch vertical jump, 10-6 broad jump), toughness (28 reps with 225 pounds in bench press) and has a deceptive second gear to fool defenders (reportedly a best of 4.42 seconds in 40 yards). Although concerns over durability will keep him down on some draft boards, his combination of initial burst, power and reliability as a receiver and blocker may get him selected early and get him on the field as a rookie. If he can stay healthy, he has the various abilities to be an outstanding NFL back.
10. Cyrus Gray, Texas A&M, 5-10, 201, 3-4
Here is a hard-working, hard-running, team-oriented athlete who will take on just about any assignment and probably do well at it. That was first obvious at DeSoto High School in Texas, where he played running back, quarterback, receiver and returner in his last two years and accounted for 67 TDs. Coach Mike Sherman put Gray to work as a running back, slot receiver and returner and it paid big dividends. Gray started 29 games, played in 49, collected 3,298 yards and 30 touchdowns rushing; 776 yards (103 catches) and six scores receiving; and 2,349 yards and two more touchdowns on kickoff returns. That totaled 6,423 all-purpose yards at that rate of 131.08 per game. Last year he appeared in 11 games, starting five, and managed to lead the team in rushing (1,045 yards) despite missing two games with a stress fracture in his shoulder. He has good strength (21 reps with 225 pounds on bench press coming off bad shoulder), surprising top-end speed (reportedly had best of 4.40 seconds in 40 yards at the combine), and is an excellent blocker and receiver. If that's not enough, Sherman says Gray is the kind of guy you would want your daughter to marry. Not sure what the NFL scouts made of that.
1. Evan Rodriguez, Temple, 6-2, 239, 5-6
In high school Rodriguez was most fond of basketball, where he was a star, but was told he better enjoy football because that was his future. But the question was -- and remains -- where in football is his place? In high school he played safety and quarterback. He first went to West Virginia, where he redshirted as a freshman while coaches debated whether to play him at safety or tight end. Instead, he transferred to Temple, where he had to sit out the 2008 season then lined up at various receiver positions in 2009, but managed to make an impact as a physical special teams player. The next year he started nine games at tight end and was suspended from one game for violating team rules. In 2011 he started at tight end and continued to impress on special teams. So his career totals included 69 catches for 871 yards with seven touchdowns. And there was one carry for one yard as a fullback. He was invited to the combine as an H-back, where his toughness and receiving skills might fit best in the NFL. However, for lack of anything more appropriate, he is listed by most teams as the top fullback prospect. And there, he is projected as only a fifth-round prospect. No wonder he liked basketball.
1. Coby Fleener, Stanford, 6-6, 247, 1
Fleener is another former high school basketball star who has the leaping ability and soft, sure hands that are mandatory in that sport and a big asset in football. Fleener lined up at almost every eligible receiver position at Stanford and was a huge target for Andrew Luck. He showed a good feel for finding soft spots in zones and had the speed and guts to run across the middle to catch passes in stride without blinking. He is not built for, nor does he seem to relish, tough in-line blocking assignments, although he was impressive on the bench press at the combine, hoisting 225 pounds 27 times. He was most productive as a senior with 34 catches, 667 yards and 10 TDs, boosting his four-year totals to 96 catches, 1,543 yards (16.1 average) and 18 scores. He is generally considered the best of a below-average group, but helped himself with a good workout at his pro day, where Luck even threw some bad passes so Fleener had a chance to look good catching them.
2. *Dwayne Allen, Clemson, 6-3, 255, 2
Allen has all the positives and negatives that come from being a former hoops standout. The positives include great body control and big, soft, reliable hands as a receiver. The negatives are a lack of great speed or the ballast necessary to be an overwhelming blocker. Allen accentuated the positives in a complicated, pro-type offense at Clemson and won the 2011 John Mackey Award as best tight end in the country. Last season he caught 50 passes for 598 yards and eight touchdowns after a 2010 season in which he grabbed 33 for 373 and one TD. Allen doesn't have the blazing speed to stretch the field at the seams, but he has plenty of quickness and agility to be a real pest on short and intermediate patterns. He is an alert, hard-working, well-rounded athlete who gives up his body to do whatever is necessary. After being timed in a disappointing 4.89 seconds for 40 yards at the combine, Allen surprised scouts by not trying to improve that at his pro day, saying, "I'm not a track guy, I am a football player. Just watch me on film. I play faster."
3. *Orson Charles, Georgia, 6-3, 251, 3
Charles was already well known when he graduated from Tampa (Fla.) Plant High School following a senior season that included 75 catches for 1,440 yards and 21 TDs at tight end. He followed that by being named freshman All-American at Georgia and went on to compile three-year career statistics of 94 catches for 1,370 yards and 10 scores. He also blocked a punt against Vanderbilt last year and was named first-team All-SEC and to the Sporting News first-team All-American squad. He shows more athleticism than aggression in his game, but does show a mean streak on occasion. He works hard in the film room and classroom, where he was honor roll for three years. He did well on the bench at the combine, lifting 225 pounds 35 times, but didn't run, saying he wasn't ready. Perhaps he should have left it at that. He did run at his pro day, posting mediocre times (in the 4.8-second range) while running with a strong wind. A couple of nights later he was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol, which some might find understandable after a bad week, but probably not a great move while being scrutinized by NFL teams.