• Top prospect: Alabama’s Mark Ingram draws comparisons to Emmitt Smith, but some teams wonder whether he’s dynamic enough and downgrade him because of his postsurgical knee.
• Overall: There’s a chance Ingram will be the only halfback to go in the first round, but overall this a deep year for good prospects from the second through the fourth rounds.
• Packers outlook: A moderate need with Ryan Grant returning from ankle surgery and James Starks showing late last season he might push Grant for the starting job. No needs at fullback with Quinn Johnson and probably John Kuhn and Korey Hall returning.
• Rising star: Eastern Washington’s Taiwan Jones ran a 4.34-second 40 earlier this month coming off a broken foot late last year and is shooting up draft boards late.
• Falling star: Noel Devine’s 5,761 career all-purpose yards are most in West Virginia history, but his lack of size (5-7½, 179), injury history and mediocre senior year make him a free agent at best.
• Sleeper: Kentucky’s Derrick Locke is a track man playing football and with a 4.37-second 40 might add some big-play ability to an NFL offense.
The odds are low but can’t be ruled out: What if Alabama halfback Mark Ingram slides down the first round because of concerns about knee surgery a year ago and is available when the Green Bay Packers select at No. 32 overall?
Depending on the Packers’ assessment of his knee, it might be one of those deals that’s too good to pass up.
Though the Packers feel at least OK about what they have at running back with James Starks’ promising performance late last season and Ryan Grant’s return from a severe ankle injury that ended his 2010 season in the opener, Ingram would offer the possibility of adding a real difference maker to the backfield.
Not all teams think he’s that good regardless of the questions on his knee, or there wouldn’t be talk of him moving down the board some in the first round. But several scouts interviewed the past three weeks spoke extremely highly of Ingram as a prospect.
“If Ingram were to get to Green Bay, that would be huge,” one NFL scout said. “Ingram is one of those guys in this draft, he’s an outstanding collegiate player, no doubt about that, and I think he’s going to be an even better pro. I really do. When you talk about the toughness, the physicality, the way he runs the football, somebody’s going to get a hell of a player here.”
In fact, one long-time scout of college players said he considers Ingram a better prospect than Emmitt Smith was coming out of Florida in 1990. Smith is the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, so it’s a long way from here to there for Ingram. But in terms of the talent they showed in college, the scout likes Ingram a little better.
“I love that kid,” the scout said. “I hear the comparisons to Emmitt, and you can see it when you watch tape, you really can. The difference with this guy is he’s more explosive (than Smith) as far as speed, he’s more explosive as far as violence.”
The comparisons between Ingram and Smith are long running among NFL scouts and stem from their physical similarities. Smith actually is the smaller of the two, reportedly 5-feet-8 and 202 pounds during his career with the Cowboys, as opposed to Ingram’s scouting-combine measurements of 5-9 1/8 and 215. Their compact, powerful, short-striding running styles are similar.
Also, both put up huge rushing numbers in college despite lacking long speed – Smith reportedly ran the 40 at his campus workout in 4.55 seconds; Ingram ran 4.62 seconds at the scouting combine and then 4.53 seconds and 4.56 seconds at his campus workout.
Smith’s speed deficiencies left him on the board in 1990 until Dallas selected him at No. 17 overall. Ingram likewise appears to be getting consideration starting in the middle of the first round despite his decorated career.
Ingram almost surely will be the first running back selected, but reports over the last couple of weeks have suggested he’s likely to go later in the round than earlier and even raised the possibility of him slipping out of the first round because of the knee. He had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee in August of last year, missed the first two games and didn’t put up anything like the numbers he did in winning the Heisman Trophy as a sophomore the previous season – 1,658 yards and a 6.1-yard average in ’09, 875 yards and a 5.5-yard average last year.
But he also split time last year with Trent Richardson, who appears to be a first-round prospect if he enters the draft next year after his junior season.
“When (Ingram collides with) defenders his production actually picks up, that’s where he gains a lot of yards,” a scout said. “He is prototypically the size you look for. Does he have the long-ball speed? No, he doesn’t. But the game’s played in 10- to 20-yard spurts, so I think he’s going to be special at the next level.”
It’s hard to know if the reports about Ingram’s knee reflect some teams’ genuine concern about his future, or whether that’s just a smokescreen teams are planting in the media in hopes of him dropping to them. Mike Lombardi of the NFL Network reported earlier this month that two teams that need a running back have taken Ingram off their boards because the knee is “very bad” and will be susceptible to debilitating degenerative arthritis.
But a high-ranking executive interviewed last week said he’s seen nothing to downgrade Ingram.
“We’re comfortable with his knee, yeah,” the executive said.
In the end, it seems unlikely Ingram would make it all the way to the bottom of the first round if there are at least a handful of teams, and possibly more, who like him as much as several of the scouts interviewed for this story. But every once in a while the unlikely happens, such as when Aaron Rodgers was on the board for the Packers at No. 24 overall in 2005.
“If (Ingram) gets past Miami at 15, I still don’t know if he can get to 32,” a national scout said.
1. Mark Ingram, Alabama, 5-9 1/8, 215, Round 1: Entering the draft after his true junior season, won the Heisman Trophy as a sophomore. “I like his running style, he’s extremely violent,” one scout said. “DBs come up and try to tackle him, he either runs over or through them or gives them a violent stiff arm. This guy is built and wired right for the next level as far as a complete running back.” Son of former NFL receiver Mark Ingram, who caught 39 passes in one season with the Packers (1995) and now is barely a year into a nearly 10-year jail sentence for money laundering, bank fraud and jumping bail. Mark Jr. rushed for 3,261 yards, a 5.7-yard average and 42 touchdowns his three years at Alabama. “He’s an inside, downhill runner between the tackles,” another scout said. “He’s got great vision, he can bounce outside or he can make a cut and skip and skate and go backside. He’s got the package. He’s got a compact running style, he runs behind his pads really well.” Some teams are concerned that he lacks breakaway speed (4.62 seconds at the scouting combine) and others worry that his left knee, which required arthroscopic surgery last August, will develop arthritis and shorten his career. “I don’t ever see him being a Pro Bowl player,” a third scout said. “(Lacks) speed and elusiveness.”
2. Ryan Williams, Virginia Tech, 5-9 3/8, 212, Rounds 1/2: Entering the draft after his redshirt sophomore season, put up huge numbers (1,655 yards, 5.6-yard average, 21 touchdowns) as a redshirt freshman, then saw those numbers drop (447 yards, 4..3-yard average, nine touchdowns) when a bad hamstring injury early last season sidelined him for 4½ games and limited him a couple weeks thereafter. “Williams can be a home-run hitter,” a scout said. “He’s quick, he’s explosive, he can evade people.” Appears to have decent long speed even though he ran the 40 in 4.59 seconds, then lowered that to 4.53 seconds and 4.54 seconds in his campus workout. “He’s a small guy, but he’s well built, this guy’s got muscles coming out of his ears, he was just rocked up,” another scout said. “I like everything he brings for his size.”
3. Mikel Leshoure, Illinois, 5-11 5/8, 227, Rounds 1/2: Junior entry became a full-time player last season and blew through the Big Ten with 1,697 yards rushing, a 6.0-yard average and 20 touchdowns. “I liked his ability to put up yardage, his production was off the charts,” a scout said, “and it’s not something where you see three (yards) here, four there out of 40 carries a game. He’s popping off some stuff. Once he gets in the secondary he lacks that long-ball speed but he’s productive. He can catch the ball. He patterns his game after (St. Louis’) Steven Jackson. I don’t see him being quite that explosive, but he is a good running back.” A power back in the mold of former Illinois back Rashard Mendenhall, who was the No. 23 pick overall in ’08. “(Leshoure) is a big guy,” another scout said, “but when he’s playing against Northwestern and Baylor and Minnesota he’s making big plays, but when he’s playing against Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State he didn’t show up. He’s a big, good-looking guy. But he’s not Mendenhall.”
4. Daniel Thomas, Kansas State, 6-0¼, 230, Rounds 2/3: Originally committed to Florida but was an academic non-qualifier and played two years as an option quarterback at Northwest Mississippi Community College before converting to running back at K-State. “He can flat play,” a scout said. “He plays faster than he runs (the 40), he runs 4.58 or something like that. Ingram’s not real fast either. This guy’s big, he’s strong, he can make people miss, he can catch the football. You bring him along initially good and slow, he’s going to be a hell of a player.” A big back who in two years at K-State rushed for 2,850 yards, a 5.2-yard average and 30 touchdowns. His quarterback experience makes him a natural for a wildcat offense. However, his fumbling problems at K-State – 11 overall, seven last season – is a deal breaker for some teams. “You have to coach him,” another scout countered. “He’s only played running back two years in his life. He was a quarterback the rest of the time. He can give you so much versatility, he can play that wildcat quarterback, he can be a running back, plus he can deploy (as a receiver).”
5. Kendall Hunter, Oklahoma State, 5-7 ¼, 199, Round 2/3: An undersized, scat-back runner who has a metal plate in his ankle from surgery his junior year. “I don’t know how teams judge his medical,” a scout said, “but I like his change of pace. He’s tough, he bounces, he’s got good speed, he can press the edge and hit it and go. Catches the ball well and gets up field. Good run-after-catch skills.” All-around back who in four years rushed for 4,181 yards, a 5.9-yard average and 37 touchdowns, and caught 63 passes for an 8.2-yard average. Probably won’t be durable enough for heavy duty so will need a defined, smaller role, possibly on passing downs. Ran the 40 in 4.46 seconds. “I like him, but I don’t like him early,” another scout said. “I don’t know where he’ll fit in for you. He’s little, he makes plays. He’s got to fit in the right place and do the right things.”
6. Delone Carter, Syracuse, 5-8 5/8, 222, Rounds 2/3: Was high school Mr. Football in Ohio in 2005. Power runner who in four seasons rushed for 3,104 yards, a 4.8-yard average and 24 touchdowns. “Downhill guy, runs hard, bowling-ball type guy,” a scout said. “He’s a smaller version of the (Michael Turner) guy at Atlanta.” Was a medical redshirt in ’07 because of hip surgery and missed more than half of ’08 because of a pulled hamstring. Ran the 40 in 4.54 seconds and had a solid 37-inch vertical jump. Arrested a year ago, reportedly for punching a man who was part of a group that threw snowballs at a car Carter was riding in, and then at Carter when he rolled down the window to confront him. “Hasn’t had any trouble other than that,” a second scout said. “Really good football player, inside runner, just a hard-nosed guy. He’s a bigger back, he’s an inside runner. If you’re looking for a guy to move the chains, he can be it.”
7. Shane Vereen, California, 5-10¼, 210, Rounds 3/4: Junior entry who’s similar to former teammate Jahvid Best – the two were Cal’s co-MVPs in 2009, and Best ended up the No. 30 pick overall for Detroit last year. Vereen is a little bigger and not quite as dynamic. “He’s a good player, he’s a bright guy,” a scout said. “He’s the kind of guy, he can’t be your bell cow. He’s no different than the Best kid. He’s not as fast, doesn’t have the top-end speed, but he’s a bright guy, you can’t take anything away from that.” In three seasons rushed for 2,834 yards, a 5.1-yard average and 29 touchdowns. Also used extensively in the pass game and caught 74 passes for a 9.1-yard average. Ran the 40 in 4.49 seconds. “I liked his size,” another scout said. “He ran better at the combine than I thought he was going to run. You don’t see him playing quite that fast all the time. He’ll go down quick on hits, but the skill level you see on college tape, you’ll see more of that and get it developed on the next level.”
8. DeMarco Murray, Oklahoma, 5-11 5/8, 213, Rounds 3/4: Three-year starter who is Oklahoma’s all-time leader in all-purpose yards (6,498) and touchdowns (64). Averaged 4.9 yards a carry for his career and caught 157 passes for 10.0-yard average. Also averaged a solid 27.6 yards and had two touchdowns in 53 kickoff returns. Tested great – his 4.37-second 40 tied for best among running backs who ran the combine, and his 10-10 broad jump tied for best of all players there. “I like him somewhat, but I don’t think he’s a top pick,” a scout said. “I think he runs out of control. Some people really like him. He overextends himself, he’s more a flasher than a guy who has control and can create a play. What happens when you overextend, your head’s down. When your head goes down, you go down.”
9. Jordan Todman, UConn, 5-8 7/8, 203, Rounds 3/4: Junior entry who in his career rushed for 3,179 yards, a 5.2-yard average and 31 touchdowns. On the smallish side but has good long speed – his 4.40-second 40 tied for third-fastest among all backs at the combine. Despite his size was something of a workhorse last season with 334 carries for 1,695 yards and a 5.1-yard average. Also averaged 25.0 yards on 37 kickoff returns in his career. “He’s not your classic small guy,” one scout said. “Kind of like a regular (halfback), not a make-you-miss, change-of-pace guy. More between the tackles.”
10. Jacquizz Rodgers, Oregon State, 5-5 7/8, 196, Rounds 3/4: Junior entry, a small, quick all-around back who put up big numbers at Oregon State but is slow for a player his size. “I like him, he’s tough, but I don’t know what you do with him,” a scout said. “He’s just small. I just know small running backs in this league don’t last very long.” A brother, James, is a receiver and return man for Oregon State, and his uncle, Michael Lewis, is a safety for the St. Louis Rams. Was the core of Oregon State’s offense in his three seasons, put up 4,933 total yards from scrimmage and 51 touchdowns, averaged 4.9 yards a carry and caught an astounding 151 passes. Ran the 40 in 4.59 seconds. Scores high on desire but will have to be a third-down back in the NFL. “He doesn’t run real fast,” a second scout said. “He’s got a big body but he’s not (Jacksonville’s 5-7 and 208-pound Maurice) Jones-Drew, and he doesn’t have the burst that (San Diego’s 5-6 Darren) Sproles has.”
1. Owen Marecic, Stanford, 6-0½, 248, Rounds 4/6: Was the rarest of the rare last season in today’s major-college football, a two-way starter at middle linebacker and fullback. Four-year starter at fullback, caught 25 passes for an impressive 10.3-yard average. Smart, tough conventional lead-blocking fullback and special teams player. Ran the 40 4.87 seconds. “You have to remember this kid’s played 100 snaps a game (last season),” a scout said. “Now you take those snaps away from him, put him on offense. And he’s a bright guy, loves to play the game, and he’s a quick learner. He can be coached. He’ll do what you want him to do. He hasn’t been coached, because he works sometime on offense, and then the next thing he’s working on defense. What kind of technique can he have?”
2. Charles Clay, Tulsa, 6-2 7/8, 245, Rounds 4/6: As much of an H-back as a fullback – both roles involve extensive lead blocking, but H-backs catch more passes than conventional fullbacks. Four-year starter caught 189 passes for a 13.5-yard average and 28 touchdowns. A finesse blocker. “Most fullbacks you’re looking for that pounder, that thumper. He’s not that,” one scout said. “He’s the other end of it, he’s a pesky type of guy. But he can run, he can really catch, they can deploy (as a receiver) him, he can do some things.”
3. Anthony Sherman, 5-10¼, 242, Rounds 5/7: Three-year starter who had only 17 career carries for a 3.6-yard average and no touchdowns. Tough, smart lead blocker with good special-teams potential. “He’s a gym rat and everybody talks about him because he’s such a guy on special teams,” a scout said. “He’s not as athletic as the guys up at Green Bay, because he’s never been a tailback, like the (John Kuhn) guy from Shippensburg, he was a running back (in college). (Sherman’s) not a killer but he’ll cut (block) the hell out of you.”
4. Henry Hynoski, Pittsburgh, 6-0 3/8, 257: Round 6/free agent: Junior entry whose father, Henry, played one year for the Cleveland Browns. Two-year starter was used regularly as a receiver last season (25 catches, 7.0-yard average). Slow (5.06 in the 40) and isn’t the bruising blocker his size suggests he’d be. “You can put him on the line, you can put him in the backfield, split him out, he does a lot of different things,” one scout said. “But he’s not a pounder, he’s a fit-on guy.”
5. Stanley Havili, USC, 6-0¼, 227, Round 7/free agent: Cousin of Kansas City Chiefs tight end Tony Moeaki. Small, athletic fullback-halfback hybrid, averaged 6.3 yards on 81 carries and 11.1 yards on 116 receptions as a three-year starter. Has had chronic shoulder separations dating back to high school and was a medical redshirt as a freshman because of a broken leg. Wasn’t able to work out at the combine or campus Pro Day because of his shoulder. “He’s the athlete of all of’em,” a scout said, “but he’s less the blocker, and that’s what people are looking for. Generally when they put a fullback in the game it’s to lead block. If you can’t do that you’re in trouble.”