2010 NFL Draft: Running Back Analysis, Part 2

Andrew Garda@andrew_gardaFeatured ColumnistMarch 29, 2010

MIAMI, FL - SEPTEMBER 20: Running back Shawnbrey McNeal #33  of  the University of Miami Hurricanes rushes upfield against the Texas A&M Aggies at the Orange Bowl on September 20, 2007 in Miami, Florida.  Miami won 31-17.  (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

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Welcome to part two of my analysis of the top 20 running backs entering the NFL draft. You can find part one HERE .

While the cream of the crop is definitely in the top 10, there is a lot of solid depth and value here in the latter half of the group.

Many of these players may not have an immediate impact, but I think this second group could still produce some very good players who will bring tremendous value to their teams long term.

11. Shawnbrey McNeal, Southern Methodist 5’10” 190

Not familiar with McNeal? You aren’t alone.

Few had heard of McNeal as he spent two unproductive seasons with Miami before transferring to SMU. When he arrived, McNeal put up a very good season, compiled 1,268 yards and a dozen touchdowns on 236 carries. 

During that time, McNeal showed great awareness and instincts, finding the smallest holes to slip through between defenders. He is very elusive both in the backfield and in open space, where his speed, agility, and ability to cut back make him incredibly dangerous.

His speed is pretty good overall and McNeal definitely has that second gear that allows him to break a long run. He also proved to be a good receiver out of the backfield.

The biggest knock on McNeal is size. At 5’10”, 190 lbs he is very diminutive and it’s hard to imagine he could withstand a full year’s pounding as a lead back. Of course his lack of size and bulk makes it difficult for him to be effective blocking as well. Finally, with just one year with significant carries it is hard to gauge whether we have seen his ceiling or his floor as a player.

With his speed and big play ability, I believe he could be utilized by a smart team in much the way a Reggie Bush, Brian Westbrook, or Leon Washington might be used. Not as a chief ball carrier, but as someone who could be set in the backfield or split out wide as the situation warranted.

As a member of a multiple RB backfield, McNeal could have a huge impact.   

12. Lonyae Miller, Fresno State 5’11” 220

Miller really got lost in the shuffle at Fresno State, where he shared time with a lot of other backs most notably Ryan Mathews. When he did get the ball, Miller showed some good explosion through the hole followed by very good speed which can produce some big plays.

When he played at the Senior Bowl this February in Mobile, he showed all that off as well as some nice agility and overall athleticism.

Unfortunately, Miller’s overall skill-set is limited. He doesn’t show a great deal of vision and misses opportunities to cut back during a run. Miller tends to run a bit high, and while he has good speed it’s really just straight-line speed. He’s also a bit slight and doesn’t look like he will hold up to a lot of big hits nor do much good in blocking duties. 

A one-cut-and-go runner, Miller is likely to be a backup or at best a part of a larger running back by committee. Even if he can overcome his skill limitations and add some mass, he is likely to have a limited overall role in an offense though he could serve well as a back-up or change of pace back.    

13. Dimitri Nance, Arizona State 6’2” 223

Nance has a lot of very big pluses in my mind. He is a strong, patient runner who can follow his blockers, then cut off them to hit a hole while showing the vision to see those holes form and the instinct to know when to go.

He has a nice burst to get loose and can make all the cuts you like a running back to be capable of to get past the defense.

Nance shows the agility, strength and balance to overcome a big hit or an arm tackle and still get that extra yard or two. When a defender does get ahold of him, Nance keeps those legs pumping to fight for every yard.

He’s a fierce competitor who will also bring that to his blocking, though he still has to improve in that area. Between that and his pass-catching ability, Nance was a productive member of the Sun Devil passing offense.

Nance struggles in several areas and the top issue is with ball protection. Nance had a habit of putting the ball on the turf at Arizona State and then showed that unfortunate tendency off again at the East-West Shrine game.

That is the very first thing he has to change or he won’t last long in the NFL. Coupled with his lack of elite speed or explosiveness, his ball security issues will scare some teams off.

That said, if he can improve in that area—something that is very much within his grasp—he could be a great addition to an offense.  

14. Darius Marshall, Marshall 5’10” 189

In terms of his skill-set, Marshall is a triple threat: He can run the ball, catch the ball and return the ball.

Marshall shows a great deal of patience when running the ball, both when allowing his blockers to get lined up or waiting for holes to be opened. He’s very quick and shows good balance which, with his pad level and forward lean, make him trouble for defenders trying to tackle him.

Marshall doesn’t have the speed to run away from defenders, lacks size, and isn’t much of a blocker.

His basic athletic ability and agility, coupled with good receiving and returner skills make him someone a team might look for later in the Draft. He may get a look on occasion in the rushing attack, but likely he’ll make or break his career on kick returns.    

15. Chris Brown, Oklahoma 5’10” 202

Brown is a tough, hard running back who will attack a running lane aggressively and will lower his shoulder and deliver a blow to tacklers, allowing him to break arm tackles and gain extra yards after contact.

In his time at Oklahoma, Brown showed great patience while waiting for a hole to open, but decisiveness when it did. He waits for a blocker or hole—he sees the block line up or the hole open—and then he hits it hard.

He is also a willing blocker who will step in to keep a quarterback on his feet, or serve as an outlet target if need be. 

Brown isn’t terribly elusive and he’s far quicker than he is fast.

While he does several things well, he doesn’t light it up with any aspect of his game and it’s possible we’ve already seen most of what he is capable of. I suspect he will find a home with a team in the market for a utility-type running back; a guy who can produce in a few different ways but won’t be expected to step in long term as a starter.  


16. Keiland Williams, LSU 5’11” 225

Williams only got a limited amount of touches due to primarily serving as a back-up during his career at LSU. He did make the most of it, averaging a 6.0 yards per carry. He possess good balance and strength and will fight through arm tackles to gain more ground, though will not make the defense miss in close quarters.

Williams is quick but not fast and won’t break off too many big runs where he outruns the defense.  He runs very smoothly and can adjust on the fly to make the cuts he needs to in order to gain yards. He can also catch the ball very naturally. Adds some value in pass protection and can return kicks.

Williams definitely could see a lot of time as a change-of-pace back with some upside, but how much is a little difficult to tell given his role as backup.

He could contribute as a special team player for a while as a team hones his skills.


17. James Starks, Buffalo 6’1” 203

Starks is a player who, while not the most gifted in any one way, makes the most of his abilities through hard work and determination. 

He doesn’t have great speed, isn’t terribly explosive, and doesn’t have a great deal of burst through the hole. But he runs incredibly tough, keeping his legs moving even after being wrapped up and isn’t afraid to drop his shoulder and deliver a big hit.

He has outstanding patience and will wait for the hole to open or follow his blockers until an opportunity arises to make a break. While he isn’t going to explode out of the hole, he’ll run right through an initial arm-tackle and can stay on his feet after being hit or delivering one of his own.

Starks missed the 2009 season with a shoulder injury and that will hurt his value as well. I think Starks has a chance to at least contribute as a back-up, but his limited overall skills probably mean that’s all he’ll be for whatever the length of his career is. 


18. Ben Tate, Auburn 5’11” 214

While not a speed demon by any means, Tate is a quick, patient runner who always runs hard. He can find some success between the tackles where his toughness helps him gain ground.

In college, he showed the vision to find gaps to run through and see the holes forming. He doesn’t have elite speed, but will wear defenses out as the game progresses with his tough running style.

Tate needs to increase his lower body strength to help him break arm-tackles and clear through traffic. He could contribute to the passing game as a receiving target, but isn’t a great blocker and that might limit his opportunities in that aspect of the game.

Tate put up some respectable numbers at Auburn and had an outstanding Senior year. It will be a little tough to translate that to a high level of NFL success given some of his current limitations. But if he can increase his strength and improve his pass blocking skills, he could provide help as a third down back.  

19. Stafon Johnson, USC 5’10” 214

Stafon Johnson is best known for a weight-lifting accident in which he crushed his neck and larynx when a weight bar fell on him. It’s been a long way back and a nice story watching him recover in time to make a reasonably good showing at the Combine and it highlights the toughness and competitive spirit which marks Johnson’s game.

Despite missing 2009, there is plenty of game film to look at for Johnson, as he was an important part of the Trojan attack for two years before the accident.

In it, you’ll see a tough runner who can gut out tough yards after contact or change direction instantly to make a tackler miss. He can make the corner and is dangerous when he does so, even though he doesn’t have elite speed. He tends to run a bit too upright, which could leave him open to some big hits. 

Johnson is happy to bring his competitive streak to pass protection as well and has shown he can handle kick returns on special teams. There is some thought he might also serve on punt returns, though he’ll admit that while he has practiced shagging punts, he hasn’t done it in a game since high school.

Still, special teams is likely to be where Johnson starts out. 

While willing, he needs to improve his pass protection skills. His injury has caused some to worry he might be a bit of a health risk. Once he proves the neck injury is past him, improves blocking and perhaps changes his running style, I think Johnson will actually be a good back-up running back who can fill multiple roles on a team.  

20. Keith Toston, Oklahoma State 6’0” 210

Toston is a one-cut runner who isn’t going to make anyone miss very often.

He doesn’t stop and start smoothly or easily and can get caught up in traffic when there isn’t a clean lane. When he finds a lane, he doesn’t have enough burst getting through it, and when he does get though it, isn’t a burner who will run away from defenders.

Toston is a guy who runs very hard, and has the vision both to see holes in the backfield and find space to run in the open field. Sure, he won’t win too many footraces, but he gains yards the old fashioned way: by keeping his legs pumping and delivering hard hits on defenders.

This is a back who can be very tough to bring down as his sense of balance and overall strength allow him to keep on his feet and moving forward. Toston is also a good reciever.

Toston really only had one season as a starter at Oklahoma State, but was able to take the job in his Senior year and had a very nice season. In the right situation (a team who favors a one cut and run type of ground game) he could emerge as a very solid backup with some upside.    




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