(A series looking at the top players at various positions leading up to the 2012 NFL Draft, set for April 26-28.)
It's a position where good players, Pro Bowl-caliber players, have been found in the latter rounds of a draft, or even among those who do not get drafted. It's a position where turnover can be high, because the wear-and-tear on the body quickly becomes an issue. It's a position that has gone from being the focal point of every NFL offense to an afterthought in most NFL offenses.
When it comes to the process of building a roster capable of contending for a championship, running back has become something of a devalued position. That is, unless and until a special player comes along. Then all of that stuff goes right out the window.
Trent Richardson is a special player.
Richardson (5-foot-9, 230 pounds) spent two seasons behind Mark Ingram at Alabama, and even though Ingram went on to win a Heisman Trophy that particular pecking order likely had more to do with seniority than ability. In those two seasons as a backup, Richardson averaged 5.2 and then 6.2 yards per carry, and that was only the beginning. In his one full season as a starter, Richardson set school records for rushing yards (1,679) and touchdowns (21) while averaging 5.9 and becoming a Heisman finalist. He's a decent receiver and can return kickoffs and has only seven career fumbles in 708 touches. Oh, and he will play his entire rookie season in the NFL as a 22-year-old. There are scouts who see Richardson as the best back to enter the NFL since Adrian Peterson.
Based on most current projections, Richardson is expected to be the only running back selected in the first round, with the next group of players here including Miami's Lamar Miller (5-11, 210), Boise State's Doug Martin (5-9, 225), Virginia Tech's David Wilson (5-10, 205), Washington's Chris Polk (5-11, 215) and Cincinnati's Isaiah Pead (5-10, 195). And in what particular order these players come off the board will have a lot to do with how they fit.
In his only season as Miami's featured back, Miller rushed for 1,272 yards and nine touchdowns with a 5.6 average, and he did all of that with a shoulder injury that forced him to miss a lot of practice and required him to wear a harness on game days. His style allows him to rip off yardage in chunks, and he's also credited with being a tough guy who protects the football.
Martin carried 129 times in 2009, 201 times in 2010 and 263 times in 2011 for a total of 593 during his time at Boise State, and he also might be the most well-rounded prospect at the position. He has been called tough, competitive and aggressive, judged to be someone who loves football and takes care of his body so he's able to play it well. If Martin had played at a college that got more exposure on television and was in a power conference, he might have become as well known as Richardson, even though he's not on the same level as a prospect.
The top-rated high school player coming out of Virginia in 2009, Wilson was the ACC Player of the Year in 2011 when he also set a Virginia Tech school record with 1,709 yards rushing, to go along with nine touchdowns and a 5.9 average. Also an All-American triple-jumper, Wilson was a dynamic playmaker in college who is going to have to show that his size is not a detriment in the NFL.
Polk rushed for 2,500 yards and 29 touchdowns as a senior at Redlands East Valley High School, but after earning a starting job as a freshman at Washington in 2008 he ended up taking a medical redshirt with a dislocated shoulder that needed surgery. He rushed for 1,100 yards in 2009, 1,400 more in 2010 and another 1,400 in 2011 despite having surgery to repair a torn meniscus during fall camp. Polk is one of only seven players in Pac-12 history to rush for more than 4,000 yards, but that comes along with 889 touches on his body – when receptions and returns are added to carries from scrimmage – as he enters the NFL.
Pead is not built to be a workhorse in the NFL, but he can make plays as a runner, receiver or kick returner. He was the Big East Offensive Player of the Year in 2011 after rushing for 1,259 yards, and he was voted the MVP of the Senior Bowl partly because he returned two punts for 98 yards. Pead will have to be a complement in the NFL, but he has a lot of the skills necessary to perform that role quite nicely.
THE 2011 NFL DRAFT, RB STATISTICS
Number drafted: 24
Picks by round: 1 in the first; 4 in the second; 3 in the third; 6 in the fourth; 3 in the fifth; 3 in the sixth; 4 in the seventh
Highest pick: Mark Ingram, Alabama, Round 1, 28th overall, by New Orleans
Biggest impact: DeMarco Murray of Oklahoma was drafted by Dallas in the third round, and he started seven games and finished with 897 yards rushing