Washington's Chris Polk throws the ball after making a reception during drills was part of the university NFL football pro day, Thursday, March 8, 2012, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
• Overall: Not a great year at the position, but there are several interesting backs expected to go from late in the second round through the fourth round.
• Top prospect: Alabama’s Trent Richardson probably is the best running back prospect since Adrian Peterson went No. 7 overall to Minnesota in 2009.
• Packers outlook: Because of injury and age issues, they’re likely to draft a halfback starting in the middle rounds.
• Rising star: Boise State’s Doug Martin reminds some scouts of Baltimore’s Ray Rice because of his compact build and all-around skills, and he could slide into the bottom of the first round.
• Falling star: Miami’s Lamar Miller at one point last season looked like a potential first-round pick because of his speed, but as scouts look more closely, they question his instincts.
• Sleeper: Mississippi State’s Vick Ballard ran a pedestrian 4.62-second 40 at the scouting combine but averaged 5.7 yards a carry the past two seasons and has an every-down back’s size (5-10¼, 219).
It’s hard to think Ted Thompson won’t select a running back with one of the Green Bay Packers’ 12 picks in this weekend’s NFL draft.
The general manager’s roster isn’t destitute at that position, but it is a little shaky.
James Starks, who played a key role as a rookie in the Packers’ Super Bowl run two seasons ago, is the front-runner for the starting job but has been injured for most of his first two NFL seasons, which can hardly leave the Packers confident he’ll be healthy enough to be effective in the money games at the end of the season and in the playoffs.
Second-year pro Alex Green, drafted in the third round last year, showed flashes of explosive running last preseason but didn’t play much in the regular season, then had knee-reconstruction surgery in November. He probably won’t be back on the field until training camp, and there’s no way to know how surgery will affect his abilities.
Ryan Grant, who almost single-handedly resuscitated the team’s running game in 2007, is an unrestricted free agent and might be back, though he visited New England last weekend. At age 29, he’s old for his position and could have a tough time making an NFL roster.
And Brandon Saine, an undrafted rookie last year, made a favorable impression after being promoted from the practice squad to the 53-man roster in Week 9 to replace Green. Still, it’s a big step from there to being a productive rotational back.
Despite the need for quality help at running back, it seems highly unlikely Thompson would draft one in the first two rounds, and maybe the first three, because of the Packers’ far more acute needs on defense. Also, running backs appear to be declining in high draft value, both because the position’s shelf life is so short and the game’s rules keep evolving to protect players in the passing game.
Still, teams need the threat of a running game, especially when the weather turns bad. And the battering inherent with playing the position means most NFL teams are rotating at least two and often three halfbacks most games.
So Thompson figures to draft one this year, probably beginning in the middle rounds.
Pinpointing the pool of players he’ll have to choose from is more difficult here than at other positions, in part because of the recent de-emphasis in the position. One back, Alabama’s Trent Richardson, is sure to go in the first round and has a good chance to be among the first five picks. Boise State’s Doug Martin and Virginia Tech’s David Wilson could go in the bottom third of the first round or more likely early in the second round.
Miami speedster Lamar Miller is an OK bet to go next, sometime late in the second round or more likely in the third. Oregon’s LaMichael James also could go as high as the late second round because of his playmaking explosiveness, though his smaller stature (5-foot-8, 194 pounds) means he’ll probably have to be a special-package player if he’s going to stay healthy in the NFL. He more likely than not won’t last past late in the third round.
At least six backs have been drafted in the first three rounds the past 10 years, so at least one and more likely two or more other backs could be gone by the end of the third round, though it’s not clear who. Depending on who’s available when the Packers pick at No. 90 in the third round, Thompson might seriously consider taking one with his three picks at the end of the fourth round (Nos. 123, 132 and 133).
Among the possibilities are Cincinnati’s Isaiah Pead, Washington’s Chris Polk and Texas A&M’s Cyrus Gray.
“I’d look hard at Pead, and I’d look hard at Cyrus Gray,” one scout said if he were picking a back late in the third or fourth round.
“The guys that come to mind are Lamar Miller if he were there,” a second scout said. “Chris Polk because he can catch it and has running skills. LaMichael James, he’s a special type of guy.”
A third scout said: “If it gets to the fourth, they’re all good fits. That’s what people are going to be thinking, so they’re all probably going to go a little earlier than that.”
Polk (5-10½, 215) stands out because he was highly productive (4,049 career rushing yards), probably has the best hands among the running backs in this draft and is big enough to play regularly.
“I like everything,” a scout said. “The toughness he brings and everything. He’s had surgery on his shoulder, but he hasn’t missed any games. Is there a little tread off the tire? Sure. Does he bring some toughness and some inside run-outside run? Absolutely.”
Pead (5-10 1/8, 197) is smaller but more dynamic than Polk.
“He’s a talented young man, and all he does is make plays,” a scout said. “He was the Big East (Conference) offensive player of the year. All these guys have done some special things. He could go third (round), he could be a little higher.”
Gray (5-10 3/8, 206) was another complete back who had more than 6,000 all-purpose yards in his career.
“I think he’s like Doug Martin,” another scout said. “Shorter, compact, strong runner.”
Top running back prospects
Trent Richardson, Alabama, 5-9 1/8, 228, Round 1
Junior entry and elite talent split time with Saints’ 2011 first-round pick (No. 28 overall) Mark Ingram in his first two years. Probably will go in the first five picks. “The complete package,” a scout said. “He’s a compact guy, but he has tremendous burst, acceleration, he plays hard. When you use the term playing physical, playing fast, and finishing, that’s this guy. He’s an old-school guy, just a competitor. Whatever he does he wants to do it the best he can. He’s not one of those guys that’s going to be half about anything he does. I just think his total game is a little better (than Ingram).” Last year rushed for 1,679 yards, a 5.9-yard average and 21 touchdowns. “An impact player,” another scout said. “Strong, powerful legs. If you want to play smashmouth offense, he’s the guy you go for. But you also have to keep in mind you’re investing a really high pick on a guy that’s going to be doing some banging, so you’ll have to have a pretty good No. 2 back to rotate in.” Didn’t work out at the combine because he had surgery to remove cartilage from his left knee. Reportedly ran the 40 in about 4.47 seconds at his campus workout in late March. Is only 21 years old. “The kind of guy he is, when you work him out, in the past those guys have been Hall of Fame running backs,” a third scout said. “It’s like, ‘What else do you want me to do?’ It’s not, ‘I don’t feel like doing this,’ or ‘I’ve done that enough.’ All he wants to do is compete and get better. The guys that are in the Hall of Fame that I’ve been around or worked out, he fits that mold.”
Doug Martin, Boise State, 5-9¼, 223, Rounds 1-2
Compact build and receiving skills remind scouts of Baltimore’s Ray Rice, who led the NFL in total yards from scrimmage last season. “He can play all three downs, and the other thing he can do is be a good kickoff return guy,” a scout said. “His whole tenure tells you (he thinks) it doesn’t matter what I do as long as I can get on the field and play. Since he’s been at Boise that’s what he did, he just wanted to play. Goes out every day, brings his lunch bucket. He and Richardson aren’t in the same class, he’s a cut below that, but he can catch the ball, he has a burst, he has that long-range ability. He’ll pass protect, he plays hard without the football. He’s just a good player.” In his final three seasons rushed for a 5.6-yard average, 3,324 yards and 43 touchdowns, plus averaged 12.4 yards on 62 receptions. Also averaged 28.4 yards on 26 kickoff returns. “As he gets through the hole runs with a low pad level so you can’t see him, then all of a sudden he hits it and gets going. A tough little instinctive runner who runs with his eyes and has a little burst in the hole.” At the combine ran the 40 in 4.49 seconds, had a 36-inch vertical and did 28 bench reps. “Short, compact, nice little burst,” another scout said. “The more I watch him the more I’m like this is Ray (Rice) coming out of Rutgers,” a third scout said. “Just as powerful, can run over defenders, run around defenders. This guy might be faster than Ray though.”
David Wilson, Virginia Tech, 5-9 5/8, 206, Rounds 1-2
Junior entry was the ACC player of the year. “I have him next (behind Richardson) even though he’s only 206 pounds,” a scout said. “He’s all (butt) and legs, and his upper body is sleek, he’s going to put on some weight and probably will go 220 when it’s all said and done. The versatility of him being able to run inside and outside, and being able to catch the ball is very intriguing, plus 1,700 yards in a season in that conference is not bad at all. I put him above Doug Martin, but it was close.” Shared time with Ryan Williams (second-round pick by Arizona last season) and Darren Evans (undrafted rookie with Indianapolis last year) for two seasons before becoming the primary back last year. “A year ago he had those other two guys, and Wilson was the speed guy,” another scout said, “could threaten you at any point, hit a crease and he could go. This year he worked on his wiggle a little bit and put on some weight and strength going into this year. I think Miller’s a little bit stronger.” Last season rushed for 1,709 yards and a 5.9-yard average. Ran the 40 in 4.41 seconds and had the best vertical (41 inches) of all running backs at the combine. “Everyone wants to talk about Wilson,” a third scout said. “Wilson has balance, he has all those things, but he has a tough time catching the football, he’s not as natural as these other guys catching the ball. As far as pass protection and those kind of things, he’s going to need some work on that. Now as far as running the football, he’s got the balance and the skill, he has that threat to take it a long ways. But …”
Lamar Miller, Miami 5-10¾, 212, Rounds 2-3
Entering the draft after his redshirt sophomore season. “My thing with Miller,” a scout said, “is he looks great in open-field running, but when he runs off the edge or gets into traffic, he doesn’t force a defender to chase him. He’ll make a cut here and there but he doesn’t try to defy angles and force a defender to chase him. He likes to run up on guys, and in this league, they’re going to run up on you. I worry about his creativity and instincts in space. I do like him, gave him a second-round grade, but he’s got to learn some stuff. I know everybody is enamored with his size and his speed and 40 and all that. You see the speed on tape, but the awareness and the instincts in space are a little scary for me.” Ran the 40 in 4.35 seconds, fastest of all backs that ran at the combine. Played most of last season with a shoulder injury and had offseason surgery, which prevented him from benching at the combine. “He’s got some toughness to him because he played his whole career at Miami with that bad shoulder,” a second scout said. “You don’t know how strong he is, and he’s not a physical finisher. He’s not a pass protector, they took him out on third down. So do you pay that (high-round) price for the guy?”
LaMichael James, Oregon, 5-8, 194, Rounds 2-3
Junior entry is an all-purpose back who scored 57 touchdowns from scrimmage and averaged 6.6 yards a carry rushing and 11.5 yards receiving in his three-year career. “I like LaMichael James, he’s just small,” a scout said. “I think he’s a third-down back and a returner, there’s no way he can even be a No. 2 and complementary back, because if the No. 1 got hurt, he’d get hurt next. He’s not big enough. It’s been proven little backs don’t last very long in this league if they’re not used right. Somebody’s probably going to take him in the third round as a change-of-pace third-down back and a returner.” Ran the 40 in 4.39 seconds and had a 35-inch vertical at the combine. Averaged 21.3 yards on 64 kickoff returns. “More of a specialty back,” a second scout said. “Very explosive, good football player, has a lot of things you want. I think he has good toughness but it’s just a question of whether he can take the beating. He’s explosive, he can score at any point, could be a heck of a return guy. Good on screens, draws, good vision. A good little player.” Had off-field problems early in his college career, including an arrest for a domestic dispute in 2010. “He’ll be a difference maker,” a third scout said. “He could make the Pro Bowl as a returner as a rookie. I see this guy in the same mold as (Carolina’s) Steve Smith, he’s about the same size as Smith, same type of dynamic speed, change of direction, playmaker when the ball’s in his hands.”
Isaiah Pead, Cincinnati, 5-10 1/8, 197, Rounds 2-3
Broke Archie Griffin’s all-time school rushing record at Eastmoor Academy High in Columbus, Ohio. “I love Pead,” a scout said. “What really surprised me were his return skills at the Senior Bowl, because he didn’t do that at the school. He’s tough, he runs behind his pads well. He’s only 197 pounds, he’ll get bigger. I like his level of toughness, and anybody that breaks Archie Griffin’s (school) records, you have to give him a nod.” Averaged 6.0 yards a carry for his four-year career, including 5.3 yards last season, when he rushed for 1,259 yards total. “He’d block you, he caught the ball, he ran the ball,” a second scout said. “I was impressed with him on film, he’ll stick his face in there. He’s tough, he can run, he’s not a coward. He’s a physical stud. And he can take it to the house. He’s not Chris Johnson and won’t run 4.2, but he can make guys miss in the hole. But he can play all three downs (too), because he’ll block you if you blitz, and he catches the ball.” Ran the 40 in 4.44 seconds and had a 33-inch vertical at the combine. “Later in the year he showed his ability as a punt returner,” a third scout said. “Because of his size I wouldn’t want him as a featured runner, but I’d like to have him as one of my committee-type guys. I’d be very comfortable taking him in the third (round).”
Chris Polk, Washington, 5-10½, 215, Rounds 3-4
Was a medical redshirt because of a shoulder injury his freshman season, then in three years as a starter averaged 5.1 yards a carry and scored 26 touchdowns. “He’s a little different than (James and Pead) in that he’s not as explosive,” a scout said. “Thick upper legs, little bit of a pudgy body, good thickness and strength in his hips. He doesn’t have that blazing speed and quickness. Pretty good vision. You’d have to be leery because he’s not able to avoid people, he’s going to have to pound. I’ve heard people talk about him like the other guys (rated ahead of him), but I don’t think he has that type of speed. I’d be reluctant to take him in the third round like those other two guys. He just doesn’t have the speed to draft him higher. I think he’s going to take a pounding, which is OK if that’s what your offense is about, rotate him in with other guys.” Caught 79 passes for an 8.6-yard average in his career. “You watch him on tape, he had that slenderness in his body,” another scout said, “but then at the Senior Bowl he didn’t have that. Then at the combine he had it again. Then you say, ‘Who’s going to show up?’ Here’s a guy that has some skills, he can catch the football. He’s probably got the best, softest hands of all the guys we’ve talked about. Pead has good hands too and Richardson and Martin are really good too. But this guy has a knack about catching the ball out of the backfield.” Ran the 40 in 4.55 seconds, had a 31½-inch vertical at the combine. “Plays faster than timed,” a third scout said, “and a tough runner, receiver and blocker. Talked to him at the Senior Bowl, he’s got an edge to him, like a (screw) you edge, not in a bad way, just a hard guy. I like that.”
Cyrus Gray, Texas A&M, 5-10 3/8, 206, Rounds 3-4
Averaged 5.3 yards a carry and scored 29 touchdowns the last three years while splitting playing time. “I see burst, acceleration, change of direction, a guy that can catch the ball,” a scout said. “He’s got good balance, good instincts, can run inside and outside. When you turn the film on, they had two backs at Texas A&M, both were really good. This kid was very good. I think he could (be a starter). He’s big enough, and he’ll go 215, 18, 220.” Ran the 40 in 4.43 seconds and 32½-inch vertical at the combine. “I see him going later,” another scout said. “He doesn’t have that suddenness. He has instincts as a runner, he’ll spin and that type of thing. He’s elusive and he can make guys miss. But there’s something about him, he’s a little stiff, and he doesn’t have that physicality you look for. And even though he runs fast he doesn’t play fast.”
Robert Turbin, Utah State, 5-10, 222, Rounds 3-4
Junior entry came back from a torn ACL sustained in 2010 to rush for 1,517 yards, a 6.1-yard average and 19 touchdowns last season. One scout ranked him as the third-best back in this draft because of his complete skill set. “He can do all the things,” the scout said. “He didn’t play in 2010 because of an injury, but he has that speed, he has the size, he can catch the ball, he has that long-range thing. He has some toughness in the passing game, he’ll protect. As you watch him on tape, he became better and better as the season progressed (last year).” In his career caught 67 passes for an excellent 12.6-yard average and 11 touchdowns. Ran the 40 in 4.48 seconds and had a 36-inch vertical at the combine. “Turbin I’ve got down in the fifth round,” another scout said. “I know he ran fast at the combine and all that, I didn’t see a lot of that speed (in games). He broke out on a couple runs, he’s tough, he’s a pounder, he has decent size. I might have him a little low, and I hear his name rising now, the media is starting to push him up a little. But I’m thinking fourth, fifth, sixth round.”
Bernard Pierce, Temple, 6-0¼, 218, Rounds 4-5
Junior entry scored 53 rushing touchdowns in his three years but caught only 19 passes. “He’s a slasher-type guy and he’s strong,” a scout said. “The question is, can he do it all? He has questionable hands, but he’s done some things (rushing) at Temple. I think he’ll go fairly early. He has good leg strength, he can run through some arm tackles. He’s not as elusive as you’d like. He’s aware as a pass protector, but let’s face it, they don’t’ throw the ball often to him.” Ran the 40 in 4.46 seconds and had a 36½-inch vertical at the combine. Averaged 5.4 yards a carry and rushed for 3,570 yards in his career.
Top fullback prospects
Rhett Ellison, USC, 6-4 7/8, 251, Rounds 5-6
Played tight end and fullback in college and caught 53 passes for an 8.9-yard average. Ran the 40 in 4.81 seconds and could be a hybrid tight end/fullback in the NFL. “I think he’ll be taken before any of them and I think he’ll be taken as a tight end,” a scout said. His father, Riki, had a 10-year career as a linebacker in the NFL with San Francisco and Oakland.
Emil Igwenagu, Massachusetts, 6-1¼, 249, Rounds 5-6
Played mostly H-back in his career and last season caught 38 passes for a 9.9-yard average. Ran a solid 40 (4.74 seconds) at the combine but is short for an NFL H-back, so he could end up as either a fullback or H-back, depending on who drafts him.
Bradie Ewing, Wisconsin, 5-11¾, 239, Rounds 5-6
Played regularly the past two years at the University of Wisconsin, including last season as the starter. Had a 4.7-yard average on his 33 career carries, and caught 28 passes for an 11.7-yard average. Ran the 40 in 4.75 seconds, had a 36½-inch vertical and did 14 bench reps. “A West Coast (offense) team may take Ewing, because he’s an undersized fullback who can really catch,” a scout said.
Cody Johnson, Texas, 5-10 7/8, 259, Round 7/free agent
Rushed for 36 touchdowns as a short-yardage back in his four-year career and averaged 4.2 yards on 345 carries. Had weight issues. Wasn’t invited to the combine. On his pro day, reportedly ran the 40 in 4.70 seconds, had a 30-inch vertical and did 27 bench reps. “Out of all those (fullbacks), he probably has more running skills,” a scout said. “He’s a big guy and they’ve used him in short-yardage and goal line, they’ve used him as a Wildcat quarterback at times, so he’s shown some running skills. And he can catch the ball OK, you can see it in his workout tape.”
Chad Diehl, Clemson, 6-1 3/8, 258, Round 7/free agent
Played regularly all four years in college but almost exclusively a lead blocker and special teams player. In his career caught seven passes for a 5.6-yard average and had six rushes for a 1.3-yard average.
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @petedougherty.