2012 NFL Draft: 5 Dark Horse Running Back Threats
In the NFL draft it is the first rounders who get all the attention. However, it is the players picked in the later rounds that can have the biggest impact on the future of their franchise.
A first rounder is assumed to be starting as a rookie. Those picked on the second and third days of the draft are expected to add depth, and at best work their way into a starting role somewhere down the line.
Because players picked in the later rounds have much lower expectations, they have the potential to overachieve. If a team lucks out and picks up a lot of late round overachievers, it can make the difference between making the playoffs and watching the mid-winter games from home.
This slide show will predict the dark horse running backs who will surprise the league by overachieving in the NFL.
Edwin Baker, Michigan State
Edwin Baker had a promising 2010 season, gaining 1,201 yards and 13 touchdowns. But in 2011, the sensational Le'Veon Bell asserted himself as the Spartans feature back. The result was a disappointing 665 yards and five touchdowns for Baker.
Still, the 5'9", 210 pound back has the potential to earn a starting gig for an NFL team.
He has short legs which limit his speed, but they also make it more challenging for defenders to tackle him. Baker naturally runs close to the ground with good balance. He has the ability to absorb hits and stay on his feet.
His biggest negative is that he never had more than seven receptions in a season. This, combined with his pedestrian 2011 season, has him projected to be picked in the sixth or seventh round.
Despite ideal size, Baker has the build to run the ball 15-20 times per game. He has a similar style to Ahmad Bradshaw of the New York Giants and will likely play a complimentary role to begin his career before proving that he can become a feature back.
Lennon Creer, Louisiana Tech
A combination of injuries and character concerns have hurt Lennon Creer's chances of being selected in the NFL draft.
But the 6'0'', 215 pound prospect out of Louisiana Tech has the potential to be a successful running back at the next level.
He stands too tall when he runs and does not break many tackles. However, if he learns to run lower to the ground he will be a more powerful runner.
Creer will not blow anybody away with his allusiveness. He also is not incredibly quick to accelerate and change directions, but he is fast once he builds momentum. Creer is at his best on tosses where he can beat defenders to the corner and sprint down the side line.
Creer will likely be picked in the sixth or seventh round (if at all). But if he is willing to put in hard work he could end up resembling Green Bay's Ryan Grant.
Ronnie Hillman, San Diego State
Though he is often compared to Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk, Ronnie Hillman is a dark horse prospect. This can happen when you play for a small school like San Diego State.
As a redshirt freshman, Hillman broke Faulk's record for most rushing yards as a rookie. He followed up an outstanding freshman year by rushing for 1656 yards and 19 touchdowns.
Hillman is not getting a lot of love from scouts due to his size and inexperience. The 5'10", 190 pound 20-year-old only has two seasons under his belt. Also, because he played in the WAC, he has not consistently faced top level talent.
It is easy to label Hillman a scatback, but in college he was a durable every-down workhorse. He accumulated 311 carries in 2011 and had the fourth-most rushing yards in the NCAA.
Hillman is a natural runner who looks comfortable taking the ball inside the tackles as well as outside. Though he will not be running over defenders in the NFL, he is elusive and fast enough to take it to the house on every play.
Looking at his tape, there are moments when he seems to play with the defense. He will not hesitate to casually jump over a defender or spin out of the trenches en route to a 90-yard touchdown run.
He will get picked in the third or fourth round and be a surprise for whatever team is lucky enough to nab him.
Bobby Rainey, Western Kentucky
Like Ronnie Hillman, Bobby Rainey is a small back from a small school. Regardless, his numbers speak for themselves: in the last two seasons, Rainey has 28 touchdowns on 709 carries and averages 4.7 yards per carry.
At 5'7" and 208 pounds, Rainey will be towards the bottom of most draft boards, not just because of his size, but his age. Rainey will be 25 years old during the 2012-2013 season. This, combined with the amount of carries he received in college, will have some teams doubting how long the small back can be effective.
Rainey will not be as explosive as Hillman, but he can still be effective in the right scheme. He is similar to Danny Woodhead of the New England Patriots. Both runners rely on their vision to hide themselves behind their offensive linemen before breaking through a hole. Rainey is also a good receiver out of the backfield.
Rainey is not as fast as you would like a small back to be. However, he is deceptively good at finishing his runs. Because he is so small, he forces defenders to get uncomfortably low to make one-on-one tackles. This gives him the opportunity to make a cut at the last second leaving stumbling defenders grasping the air.
Rainey could be a steal for a team who is looking to add depth at running back. Given his age he will only have four to five years to distinguish on a teams depth chart. He most likely will get his chances on third downs, where he can either surprise defenses with his running abilities or break their back by catching a short pass and working his way to the first-down marker.
Brandon Bolden, Ole Miss
Brandon Bolden projects to be selected on the third day of the draft. This is despite his solid 5'11", 220 pound frame. While he lacked mind-blowing stats in college, he does possess ability to be an All-Pro back in the NFL.
He can either run over or around defenders, is a reliable receiver out of the backfield and can be depended on as a blocker.
Bolden is not especially great in any one area, but his balanced skill set will make him a steal in the later rounds of the NFL draft. He is very light on his feet and has a good feel for where defenders will be. Baker is not so much elusive as he is agile. When in the open field he looks very relaxed, yet when it's time to lower the boom, he'll bring it.
At best, he could be a slower but more physical version of DeAngelo Williams of the Carolina Panthers.