NFL Draft 2011: A Comprehensive Review of Running Back Prospects

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NFL Draft 2011: A Comprehensive Review of Running Back Prospects
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Alabama's Mark Ingram is projected to be the first running back selected at the 2011 NFL Draft.

When it comes to targeting rookies in fantasy football drafts, running backs tend to be the most coveted position because they have the best chance of making a significant impact right away.  The fantasy stock of many prospects will ultimately be determined by which team drafts them and how they perform during the preseason, but it is still prudent to become familiar with the next class of rookie running backs as soon as possible.

The following analysis is a guide to get better acquainted with these running back prospects heading into April’s NFL Draft.  Factors which affect a players’ value in a fantasy perspective such as effectiveness in the passing game and the potential to become an every-down back are heavily weighted into the following rankings.

Top Prospects

The following players top the list of running back prospects in the 2011 draft class and should become valuable contributors regardless of which team drafts them.   In dynasty/keeper leagues, these four backs are worthy of being among the top-six overall picks.  Considering their likelihood to contribute right away, expect these players to be targeted in the early rounds of re-draft leagues as well.

Mark Ingram, Alabama 5’9”, 215 lbs

The 2009 Heisman Trophy winner and Alabama’s all-time leader in career rushing touchdowns (42) is perhaps the best all-around running back prospect entering the 2011 NFL Draft.  He may not have the elite speed (4.6 forty-time) but he possesses the prototypical size and bulk necessary to compete at the NFL level. 

Ingram runs with a purpose and always keeps his legs moving while using his strong lower body to break tackles and consistently push the pile forward.  His excellent vision and acceleration allows him to hit the hole quickly and he possesses a compact running style with the agility and balance to make defenders miss.  Ingram is excellent at securing the football, having fumbled only once in 453 touches. 

His excellent hands out of the backfield make him a versatile threat which can potentially help him become an every down back in the NFL.  Ingram deserves to be the number-one pick in all keeper/dynasty drafts, and expect him to be drafted in the first-round of the NFL Draft.

Mikel Leshoure, Illinois 6’0”, 227 lbs

In addition to possessing an ideal combination of size, strength and body control to become an effective goal line running back, Leshoure also has the skills and versatility to become a featured back in the NFL. He boasted an impressive six yards per carry during his career with the Fighting Illini. Although his 4.56 forty-time will not wow many scouts, he has good speed for a man of his size.  

He also possesses deceptive quickness and acceleration, great vision, and an excellent burst through the line of scrimmage.  His size and power running style is effective in wearing down defenses and should allow him to withstand the punishment that is delivered at the NFL level.  Adding a huge boost to his value is that he is an effective receiver out of the backfield. 

Critics point out that 2010 was Leshoure’s only season as a starter for Illinois, and although he exploded for 1,893 total yards and scored 20 touchdowns, his big season may have been “a fluke.”  That could prove to be a valid point, but on the plus side, there is not a lot of wear and tear on his body.  Expect Leshoure to be drafted in the first or early-second round in April’s draft, and highly sought after in all fantasy formats.

Kendall Hunter, Oklahoma State 5’7”, 199 lbs

Having drawn comparisons to both Ray Rice and Maurice Jones-Drew speaks volumes of Hunter’s potential in the NFL.  Similar to Rice and MJD, he is short but possesses a strong frame with excellent lower body strength and has a compact running style which allows him to run with power between the tackles.  Hunter lacks elite straight line speed (4.53 forty-time) but he is incredibly quick and displays excellent vision, acceleration, balance, and agility in open field.  Most of his 2009 season was marred due to an ankle injury, but in 2008 and 2010 he was very productive by rushing for over 1,500 yards and scoring 16 touchdowns each season while showing off his good hands by combining for 42 receptions and a receiving touchdown during those seasons as well.

He has faced criticism for his size and pass-blocking ability which has caused some analysts to project him as a third-round pick or later in April’s draft.  However, Hunter impressed many scouts with his pass- protection in the Senior Bowl which will likely cause his stock to rise.  If Hunter can indeed emulate the abilities and versatility of Rice and MJD, he has potential to become an excellent value pick not only for fantasy owners but for the NFL team that drafts him.

Ryan Williams, Virginia Tech 5’9”, 212 lbs

In 2009, an injury opened the door for Williams start at running back his (red shirt) freshman year and he exploded for 1,655 yards rushing and 21 touchdowns, while adding another 180 yards and a touchdown in the receiving game.  He runs with good power because of his compact frame and strong legs and is a decisive runner exhibiting good speed, exceptional vision and a good burst.  He is excellent at protecting the football having never fumbled in 429 career touches with the Hokies. Although he wasn’t utilized much in the passing game, he has soft hands and can be an asset in the passing game, but he does need to improve his pass-blocking.

In 2010, Williams missed four games due to a hamstring injury and he finished the season with just 586 total yards but still managed to score 10 touchdowns.  As he got healthier towards the end of the season, Williams began to show flashes of the athleticism that made him a success during his freshman year so it appears the injury is behind him.

Williams seemed to respond to critics who said he needed to add some bulk by showing up at the Combine 10 pounds heavier than his playing weight in college, but unfortunately it appeared to affect his speed as he ran a disappointing 4.59 forty-time.  This may negatively impact his stock among NFL teams but he has the tools to become a solid fantasy player for years to come.

Quality Prospects

The following players are very talented but have some question marks surrounding their ability to succeed right away at the NFL level, but their talent and potential make all of them quality selections in dynasty/keeper leagues.  Their value in re-draft leagues will depend a lot on which team drafts them, but they are all excellent receivers out of the backfield which gives them great fantasy potential, especially in PPR leagues.

Shane Vareen, California 5’10”, 208 lbs

Many scouts project him to become more of a change-of-pace back in the NFL due to his size but if he can add a few more pounds of bulk, Vareen has the necessary skills and versatility to become an effective every-down back at the next level.  He runs with a low pad level and possesses a muscular frame while exhibiting a good combination of speed and power which all make him effective running between the tackles.  Although he lacks elite speed, he is fast enough to break to the outside and has demonstrated he is a competent open field runner with good vision, athleticism and elusiveness. 

Vareen is a good route runner and has excellent hands having compiled 74 receptions for 674 yards and six receiving touchdowns over three seasons playing for the Golden Bears.  He may lack the home run ability, but he is a well-rounded player that should appeal to many teams and it would be a surprise to see him fall past the third round of the draft.  Vareen is oozing with fantasy potential if he can land in the right situation in the NFL.

Demarco Murray, Oklahoma 6’0”, 213 lbs

Despite missing a lot of time in his college career due to a myriad of injuries (knee, ankle and hamstring), Murray broke the school record for career touchdowns (63) and career receiving yards (1,571) by a running back. He is extremely athletic with good speed, exceptional hands and good route running ability.  Over the last three seasons with the Sooners he tallied 143 receptions for 1,511 yards and 13 receiving touchdowns.  He has plenty of experience lining up out wide on passing downs, and displays outstanding vision, good instincts and quickness in the open field. 

Although Murray rushed for a respectable 1,214 yards and 15 rushing touchdowns in 2010, there is a lot of concern that his running style will limit his ability to succeed at the NFL level.  He is not a good interior runner because he runs too upright and lacks the lower body strength to break tackles or push a pile.  This may result in Murray being coveted more as a change-of-pace and passing-down back, much like Reggie Bush of the New Orleans Saints.  Being an injury risk combined with potentially being limited to a situational role in the NFL may lower his perceived fantasy value, but his amazing athleticism and receiving ability will make him an intriguing high risk/high reward option in PPR leagues.

Dion Lewis, Pittsburgh 5’7”, 193 lbs

Lewis had a productive career with the Panthers by amassing 3,265 rushing/receiving yards, scoring 31 touchdowns, and hauling in 52 receptions in just two seasons.  He is yet another running back in this draft class that has less than ideal height but has been successful due to having good vision, patience, quickness, a low center of gravity while carrying the football, and for being generally strong relative to size.  He is elusive in the open field and has great hands catching passes out of the backfield.

 Most draft experts rank Lewis outside the top-10 at his position based on his small size, lack of elite speed, and below average pass blocking, but his stout frame and running style make him a solid candidate to be very productive in the NFL.  He may need a year or two to further develop his skills due to relative lack of experience but he has a great work ethic and should be willing to do what it takes to improve making him a solid choice to consider in fantasy drafts, especially in dynasty/keeper leagues.

Daniel Thomas, Kansas State 6’0”, 230 lbs

Played two years in junior college before transferring to Kansas State where he was very productive rushing for a total of 2,850 yards and 30 touchdowns with a solid 5.2 average yards per carry.  He also exhibited good hands by contributing 52 receptions for 428 yards during his stint with the Wildcats.  In addition, Thomas played some quarterback in junior college and also has experience running plays out of the Wildcat formation which could make him an interesting prospect for some NFL teams that like to use that formation. He is strictly a downhill runner and does not possess good speed which may project him as just a short-yardage/goal line back in the NFL, but his versatility makes him a viable candidate for every-down duties.

A major concern regarding Thomas is his upright running style.  A man of his size will be a big target in the NFL where he will be facing stronger and faster defenders who could easily knock him off his feet and perhaps jar the football loose if he doesn’t learn to run in a more compact manner.  His size and versatility give him plenty of potential to contribute right away, but learning to run lower to the ground is a must if he is to last very long in the NFL.

Worth A Good Look

Quality running backs at the college level with significant concerns whether they can have success at the NFL level.  All of them are worth keeping on the fantasy radar, but expectations should be held in check.

Roy Helu, Nebraska 5’11”, 216 lbs

He has excellent size, very good speed, good strength, soft hands out of the backfield and the athleticism to be considered a viable every-down running back in the NFL.  However, he seems to lack the tenaciousness to fight for extra yards, doesn’t keep the legs pumping after contact, and has been criticized for going down too easily.   He is also surrounded with durability concerns.  There is a lot of potential here, but an equal amount of risk.

Evan Royster, Penn State 5’11”, 218 lbs

The Nittany Lions’ all-time leading rusher has the tools to contribute right away in the NFL if he finds himself in the right situation.  Royster has good size but lacks elite speed and he must learn to run with a lower pad level in order to succeed at the next level.  He is more of a north-south runner with decent bulk, good vision and balance, but he is not very elusive in the open field, and his athleticism has been criticized by many analysts.  Despite these negatives, he possesses decent hands out of the backfield plus he is a willing and able pass-blocker which should give him a chance at some playing time his rookie year.  If surrounded by a good coaching staff and given adequate opportunities, Royster could be a pleasant surprise in the NFL as well as a sleeper to target in fantasy drafts.

Bilal Powell, Louisville 5’11”, 208 lbs

He is a very powerful North-South runner with good size and a strong frame.  Powell did very little in his first three years with the Cardinals, but broke out in 2010 with 1,563 total yards with 14 touchdowns and 18 receptions.  He also led all running backs in the Senior Bowl by rushing for 51 yards on 10 carries.  His upright running style is a concern and he has just average speed, vision and agility. He has room for improvement but his aggressive running style and soft hands make him a sleeper to keep an eye on.

Derrick Locke, Kentucky 5’8”, 188 lbs

NFL teams seeking a play-maker will be attracted to Locke because of his outstanding speed (4.4 forty-time), athleticism and versatility.  He has a tremendous burst and great vision, balance, lateral quickness, and elusiveness in the open field.  Although he is rather small, he is very tough and runs with an attitude while keeping a low pad level.  Locke has outstanding hands and is a very good route runner.  His size will prohibit him from becoming an every-down back in the NFL but his home run ability makes him a very intriguing fantasy option albeit in a situational role.

Delone Carter, Syracuse 5’10”, 220 lbs

Earned offensive MVP honors in this year’s East-West Shrine Game by rushing for 54 yards on 11 carries plus a 16-yard touchdown run in the East’s decisive victory. Carter is not very fast but he has the size to endure the pounding of the NFL, plus he is a very tough and decisive inside runner with good vision.  He runs with a low pad level and always fights for extra yards while doing an excellent job protecting the football. 

He has had injury concerns, missing all of 2007 with a hip injury plus four games in 2008 with a hamstring injury, but has played a full season and been productive in each of the past two years.  Carter may succeed as an early-down and goal line back in the NFL, but he is not very effective in the passing game (he totaled just 28 receptions in four seasons with the Orangeman) making him a much more attractive option in non-PPR leagues.

Stevan Ridley, LSU 5’11”, 225 lbs

His scouting report is very similar to that of Delone Carter of Syracuse:  He is a big, strong back with limited speed that is great at pounding the ball between the tackles and protecting the football, but lacks the skills to be effective in the passing game.  Ridley is not very elusive in the open field but can push a pile and has a nose for the end zone making him a strong candidate for goal line duties in the NFL which projects him to be a far better fantasy prospect in non-PPR leagues.

Da’Rel Scott, Mayland 5’11”, 210 lbs

He will draw interest from NFL teams since he was the fastest running back at the NFL Combine after clocking a 4.34 forty-time.  Scott runs with decent power despite an average sized frame, and he keeps his pad level low with good balance and a nice burst.  His injury history is a major concern, however, having missed many games due to ankle, shoulder and forearm injuries in three of his four seasons with the Terrapins.  If healthy, he has potential to become a productive NFL player with play-making ability due to his elite speed, running skills and solid pass-catching ability but his propensity for getting banged up is major red flag.  Fantasy owners should proceed with caution.

Mario Fannin, Auburn 5’10”, 231 lbs

Fannin raised his stock considerably after clocking the second best forty-time among running backs at the Combine (4.38).  As the Tigers’ third-string running back he was used sparingly and totaled only 1,366 rushing yards with 11 touchdowns on the ground during his four seasons with the team.  He was very effective in the passing game, however, having set a school record for running backs in career receptions (97) and receiving yards (986) while scoring nine receiving touchdowns.

Although he possesses a great combination of size and speed, he has never been able to carry a full load and has had some durability issues having suffered both shoulder and ankle injuries while at Auburn.  Fannin is known as a selfless player who works very hard which could endear him to many NFL teams, especially those looking for a role player on passing downs.  He is definitely a sleeper to keep an eye, especially in PPR leagues.

Best Of The Rest

Rounding out the remaining prospects are players with even bigger question marks but they may have a legitimate chance at some fantasy value if they get drafted into the right situation.

Jamie Harper, Clemson 6’0”, 230 lbs

Looks great on paper with a nice size/speed combination and very good receiving skills but Harper has never been able to reach elite status since being a top-rated player coming out of high school.  His numbers with the Tigers have been respectable, but he was never able to seize the starting role for himself, instead he has had to share the rushing duties with C.J. Spiller, James Davis, or Andre Ellington.  Although he has developed a reputation as an under-achiever, Harper has the size and skills to compete in the NFL if he works hard and remains focused.  While his lack of experience in carrying a full load will work against him in the short-term, he is a player to keep an eye on in dynasty leagues.

Jacquizz Rodgers, Oregon State 5’6”, 195 lbs

Although extremely productive in college, his lack of size and elite speed will be a huge challenge at the next level.  He does run with a low pad level and is an amazing receiver out of the backfield, but he does not possess the strength as some of the other smaller running back prospects entering the draft, nor does he have adequate pass-blocking skills.  Likely destined for a situational role where he will be more valuable to his NFL team than to his fantasy owners.

Jordan Todman, Connecticut 5’9”, 203 lbs

Had a very productive 2010 season for the Huskies exhibiting good speed, vision and elusiveness in the open field.  He is a competent receiver, runs good routes, and is capable of lining up in the slot in passing situations.  He lacks ideal size and lower body strength to be an effective inside runner and may not be able to handle the pounding at the NFL level.  He has some skills but will probably make most of his contributions on special teams and perhaps as a third-down back if he improves his pass-blocking.

Noel Devine, West Virginia 5’7”, 175 lbs

He was a threat in college to go the distance every time he touched the ball due to his outstanding vision, quickness and elusiveness.  Devine is an excellent receiver and a good route runner.  He is very small, however, and although he has added over 15 pounds of body weight since his Senior Bowl weigh-in, he does not possess the bulk to succeed at running the football at the next level. He may earn a roster spot as a return specialist but he will be a considerable reach to anyone looking for fantasy value.

Darren Evans, Virginia Tech 6’0”, 210 lbs

He has good size and rushed for over 1,200 yards and 11 touchdowns his freshman year (2008) showing good running ability between tackles.  After tearing his ACL in 2009 which caused him to miss the entire season and allowed teammate Ryan Williams to take over the starting running back role, he returned in 2010 but played second-fiddle to Williams.  Although he is lacking in significant playing experience, Evans could be a sleeper running back in this draft class because he has shown good running skills and he is motivated and feels he has a lot to prove.  Not a very good receiver out of the backfield so he projects to be more of a complementary back.

John Clay, Wisconsin 6’1”, 231 lbs

He is a big, bruising back with very good power and excellent lower body strength.  He shed 20 pounds from his playing weight at Wisconsin for his weigh-in at the Combine which displays a good work ethic and discipline.  His size gives him potential to contribute right away but his fantasy upside will be limited because he lacks speed (4.75 forty-time) and he is not very effective in the passing game.  Clay has potential to become a very good short-yardage/goal line back in the NFL making him an intriguing choice in touchdown-only fantasy leagues, but in all other formats do not expect him to become anything more than a touchdown vulture.

Graig Cooper, Miami 5’10”, 205 lbs

Although his college career numbers look rather pedestrian, Cooper played in a crowded backfield yet led the team in rushing yards in his first three seasons with the Hurricanes (2007-2009).  He is very athletic and has excellent hands but he needs to add some bulk and improve in pass protection in order to succeed at the next level.  He has some durability issues having tore his ACL in a bowl game after the 2009 season and then missed the first four games of 2010 because of an ankle injury.  At best, Cooper projects to be a late-round flier in fantasy drafts regardless of which team signs him.

Taiwan Jones, Eastern Washington 6’0”, 195 lbs

He was very productive in college showing off good speed, elusive open field running, and great hands. He played against lesser competition in Division I-AA, however, and he does not have the strong frame or lower body strength for his success to carry over into the NFL.  Likely to be coveted as a return specialist which doesn’t give him a lot of fantasy value outside of return-yardage leagues.

Alex Green, Hawaii 6’0”, 225 lbs

He is a big back with excellent hands and good route running ability but his upright running style and propensity to fumble will likely hinder him from succeeding at the next level.  His ability in the passing game could make him a viable PPR league option, but he must improve in pass protection if he is to be given an opportunity to contribute on passing downs.

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