The end of the season is near, and, like a good NFL fan, I'm already preparing for the draft.
In a year dominated by defense, this year's class of running backs is under the radar. With its fair share of freakish athletes and bruising workhorses, it has enormous potential despite it being considered one of the weaker groups of backs in recent years.
Here's a look into this year's group of running backs.
40 Time: 4.37
Projected Round: Top 25
There is no better athlete at the running back position in this year’s draft. Think Reggie Bush, but without the USC hype.
He can run, he can catch, he can return balls and he is as smart as he is quick. Not only is he an ardent student of the game, but he is also a star in the classroom. There are few college players that have the discipline to make the Dean’s list and the all-conference roster in the same semester.
He isn’t the best all-around back, and his size limits his physicality at the line of scrimmage, but he makes up for it by the explosive ability to get to the edge in a hurry and turn the corner for big plays.
His biggest hindrance is his inability to be effective as a pass blocker, a skill that can be taught by a good position coach. It will be difficult for Spiller to find his niche in the NFL at first but, given time, could be an excellent complement to a bruiser back.
In a draft dominated by defense, look for a team with an established running game to draft him as a second option in the backfield.
Teams that will target him: New York Jets, San Fransisco, New England
40 Time: 4.44
Projected Round: 1
Arguably the best all-around back entering the draft, Dwyer is sure to transition well to the NFL. He has great size and respectable speed.
He has progressed nicely over his three-year career and, while the spread offense hasn’t been kind to his stats this year, he still maintained over 100 yards per game through nine games this season, helping the Yellow Jackets win their first outright ACC title in nearly twenty years.
His all-around athleticism is his greatest asset. He is a poster downhill runner who hits the hole hard with conviction. Even at the professional level, it will take more than one or two defenders to bring him down.
Expect a team with a scamper to draft him as their workhorse runner.
Teams that will target him: Houston, Pittsburgh, Arizona
40 Time: 4.37
Projected Round 1-2
Best is one of those backs that has all the right qualities and looks great on paper, but sometimes he just doesn’t reflect that.
Most of the time, he goes inside and comes face-to-face with the safety faster than any other back in the draft.
Most of the time, he gets to the edge and hits a second gear unlike anyone else.
Most of the time, he cuts back against traffic and goes sideline-to-sideline before the coverage has any idea what’s happened.
Most of the time, he comes out of the backfield and makes some of the prettiest catches you’ll see on a football field.
Best is quick, physical, can go inside, outside, and make nearly every catch.
Most of the time.
Like C.J. Spiller, Best has a lot of work to do in his pass protection, but, again, this is something that is easily taught.
An injury late in the season has prohibited Best from producing big numbers, and his severe concussion against Oregon State will cause some teams to worry, but he has the ability to be the most explosive back to come out of this year’s draft. Like Spiller, he will be sought after by teams who need a spark in their running game.
Teams that will target him: Seattle, New York Giants, New England
40 Time: 4.55
Projected Round: 1-2
At 232 pounds, Gerhart is a legitimate workhorse. In fact, it is Stanford’s overuse of Gerhart that will cause some scouts to question how much he has left to give at the professional level.
However, he has all the necessary tools to be effective at the next level. He has excellent vision, especially when following a lead blocker. Utilizes natural running lanes and almost always falls forward when getting tackled. He keeps his feet moving and lowers his pads before a hit, resulting in broken tackles and extra yards.
He had few injury problems in 2007 but has seemingly overcome those and continues to run hard every game. It should also be credited to Gerhart for competing at such a high level while also attending a school that requires an impeccable devotion to academics.
Gerhart’s only setback is that he is also considering the MLB draft, a move that has some teams questioning his commitment to the game. If he does decide to go pro with football, expect him to be drafted by a team in desperate need of a third down, goal line runner.
Teams that will target him: Houston, Oakland, Indianapolis
40 Time: 4.60
Projected Round: 2-3
A big, physical competitor, Scott will be a second-round choice who will surprise a lot of folks come next season.
His draft stock has suffered due to a weak senior season, but this guy has all the intangibles. Although he should only ever try to be a north-south type of runner, he has the speed to break past the line of scrimmage and bowl over the secondary.
He does well on the inside, especially with draw plays, an asset that will garner much-deserved attention in a pass-happy NFL. Can break tackles and bounce off of defenders, but also can make the quick move when he has to.
Scott struggles with pass protection and catching the ball but has the mental toughness and drive to learn.
Though it may take a while, eventually he will be very good at the professional level. His success will depend on the team that drafts him.
Teams that will target him: Seattle, Pittsburgh, Green Bay
40 Time: 4.54
Projected Round: 2-3
Brown is an interesting runner. Paired with the explosive DeMarco Murray in Oklahoma, Brown always received the majority of carries in situations that naturally made him the workhorse of the Sooners' rushing attack.
That isn’t to say he can’t be explosive, though.
He has the ability to go into a jumbled pile of players and come out the other side with a full head of steam. Even with a poor offensive line, Brown can be productive and creatively make something out of nothing.
He is one of the standout personalities in this year’s class of running backs, displaying a quiet but competitive attitude game in and game out. He gives it everything he has on every play.
Brown can catch balls out of the backfield but typically only gets the chance to on swing plays or out routes.
Like most running backs out of this year’s draft, he has poor pass blocking ability but makes up for it with very few fumbles.
Brown will take time to develop but should eventually do nicely in a system that accents the run.
Teams that will target him: New England, Tennessee, San Diego
40 Time: 4.59
Projected Round: 3-4
Dixon has all the physical tangibles to be a great NFL back but will take time to iron out some of the wrinkles in his fundamentals. He has good size but may need to lose a little weight before the combine in order to gain more speed.
Dixon has an innate ability to find even the smallest of running lanes but sometimes loses the ball in his effort to do too much.
He really doesn’t have the speed to bounce outside but he if he finds the crease and breaks the line of scrimmage, watch out.
He doesn’t move the ball to his outside hand once he breaks free of traffic and doesn’t have the agility to make quick cuts in open space but he does a great job of breaking tackles and falling forward for those few extra yards.
Dixon isn’t really known as a legitimate receiving option but can adjust his body and make the catch if he needs to.
He is one of the toughest backs going into the draft and should attract the attention of a team willing to take a chance.
Teams that will target him: Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Kansas City
40 Time: 4.44
Projected Round: 3-4
The speedy complement to Chris Brown at Oklahoma, Murray is a body of questions.
Because he has always had to share the load with other talented backs, it’s unclear whether or not Murray has the durability to undergo the wear and tear that comes with playing in the NFL.
Murray's explosiveness is unquestionable, and he is one of the best receiving backs to enter the draft. He can make the necessary cuts and can change directions quickly but lacks the blazing speed scouts look for.
Injuries have also been a familiar companion to this young man.
It will be interesting to see who he falls to and whether or not he will be relevant. I expect him to be started at the return position and eventually progress to a receiving backfield threat.
Teams that will target him: Green Bay, New York Jets, New York Giants
40 Time: 4.45
Projected Round: 4-5
The only thing that is keeping Matthews off the map is the fact that he plays for Fresno State.
This explosive young man amassed 1,316 yards and 11 touchdowns in eight games. He has shined against tough opponents like Wisconsin, Cincinnati, and Boise State.
When Matthews runs, he lowers his head and his pads and drives his feet forward until nothing short of a brick wall stops him.
Despite his speed, he is far more effective as a downhill runner. He can bounce outside if the holes close, but when he hits the seam, he is lethal. As soon as he shakes the first tackle, he hits his second gear and pulls away from everyone on the field.
Matthews didn't have much exposure and his lack of opportunity against tough competition will hinder his draft stock, but he should make a late picker very happy with his latent abilities.
Teams that will target him: Chicago, San Francisco, Kansas City
40 Time: 4.58
Projected Round: 5-7
Blount will be one of the most controversial players in this year’s draft. He has talent, but the well-known incident in the first game of the year against Boise State will cause many teams to doubt his character and commitment.
That being said, he is a truly gifted athlete. Oregon’s offense has him running more east-west than anything else, so he has learned how to effectively run outside of the tackles.
Blount can run inside but does not find open lanes well enough. At first contact, he continues to move his feet and churn for extra yards. He has great balance and agility for a man of his weight, a measurable that will need to stay in check in order for him to have success at the next level.
Ironically, he is one of the better pass protectors in the class but is literally absent in the passing game.
Blount has the skills to be a legitimate NFL back, but his character flaws will need to be addressed by a stronger personality than his and he will need to look inward and decide if a career in the NFL is truly what he wants to pursue. Look for a team like Oakland to ignore his attitude and his little incident and gladly pick him up.
Teams that will target him: Oakland, Denver
There are a few other running backs coming out of this year's draft that will also garner attention. Some of them may fall to the supplemental draft, but will eventually find some amount of success at the professional level.
1. Montario Hardesty (Tennessee)
2. James Stark (Buffalo)
3. Ben Tate (Auburn)
4. Evan Royster (Penn State)
5. Noel Devine (West Virginia)
6. Javarris James (Miami)