The 2011 running back class has lots of talent but for various reasons they weren’t able to showcase it immediately like so many classes prior. Mark Ingram wasn’t able to put up big numbers in a Saints crowded backfield. Ryan Williams and Mikel Leshoure both had season ending injuries in preseason and look to bounce back. Daniel Thomas was supposed to come in right away and carry the load for the Dolphins but lost out to Reggie Bush and didn’t have the impact many projected. The two highlights overall were DeMarco Murray and Roy Helu. Murray stepped right into the Cowboys lineup in the middle of the year and looked like he was poised to become one of the league’s elite backs. Helu proved to be very valuable for the Redskins for both his running and receiving ability.
This draft class has its fair share of talent but with the way the NFL is now, it looks like only one will be selected in the first round. This is due to the fact that the league has caught onto that unless it is a truly talented prospect a running back isn’t worth a first round pick. However many of the league’s more successful backs weren’t selected until the middle rounds and in the case of Arian Foster; you don’t have to be drafted at all to make an impact. This class isn’t as deep as 2008 but there are a lot of players that I am high on that have the potential to make a big impact at the next level.
1. Trent Richardson, Alabama: Richardson has everything a team can ask for in an NFL running back. He has great size and vision which makes tacklers bounce off of him in the open field. Richardson is also a capable receiver with the ability to handle 20 to 25 carries a game. He is the best running back prospect to come out since Adrian Peterson and it wouldn’t be surprising if Richardson had a similar immediate impact.
2. David Wilson, Virginia Tech: Wilson had a huge junior season at Virginia Tech and has many of the traits teams look for in a starter at the next level. He is very tough to bring down due to his surprising strength and outstanding balance. Wilson also gets to his top speed very quickly and has shown the ability to be a threat out of the backfield catching the ball. He also has experience in the return game so with his playmaking ability it wouldn’t be surprising if Wilson develops into a matchup nightmare for opposing teams.
3. Lamar Miller, Miami (FL): Miller burst onto the national scene this past season at Miami as a threat to score every time he touches the ball. He has very good speed and is also strong runner for his size. Compared to the other backs, Miller as a whole is still rough around the edges and also needs to work on his pass protection. If he is able to figure these things out, the sky is the limit for Miller as in terms of this draft class only Richardson has a higher ceiling.
4. Doug Martin, Boise State: Martin isn’t a very flashy back but he is very effective both between and outside the tackles due to his good vision. He runs hard and is a solid receiver who is more than willing to block. Martin doesn’t have any elite characteristics but he has a complete skill set that will make a team very happy.
5. Chris Polk, Washington: In the last month or so Polk has been rising up draft boards and for good reason. He has the ideal size you look for in a running back and has shown that he is a very efficient receiver out of the backfield. Polk has very good vision and does a great job of breaking tackles and fighting for extra yards. He doesn’t have elite speed and the nearly 800 college carries could scare teams off but Polk will be an excellent value early on in day two of the draft.
6. Robert Turbin, Utah State: Every year there is at least one small school back that I am higher on than most and this year Turbin is my guy. At 5’10 222, he has the size to be a bruising back but can move like a smaller, shifter one. On top of this, Turbin is also a very efficient receiver out of the backfield. He needs work in pass protection but as a whole he has a similar skill set to Marshawn Lynch. While there isn’t much talk about him right now, don’t be shocked if a team comes out of nowhere to take Turbin in the second day of the draft.
7. Bernard Pierce, Temple: Pierce is a hard runner with great size who waits for the hole to develop. The main concern teams will have is about his durability but that shouldn’t stop him from being selected in the third or fourth round.
8. Isaiah Pead, Cincinnati: Pead doesn’t have the ideal size teams look for, but he makes up for that with excellent speed. He is very elusive in the open field and is good at keeping his speed going in and out of cuts. Pead also has very solid hands which along with his other traits have the makings of a very efficient third down back and a very dangerous return man.
9. LaMichael James, Oregon: James had a prolific college career at Oregon and he will be one of the more notable names come draft time. While he doesn’t have the build of a typical feature back, James would be very effective in a zone blocking scheme or as a third down back playing the role Darren Sproles did for the Saints this past season.
10. Cyrus Gray, Texas A&M: Gray is a back who can do a little bit of everything. He is very elusive in the open field and also has reliable hands in the passing game. Gray doesn’t have elite speed and won’t be a threat to take it the distance at the next level but he will provide quality depth to whatever team selects him.
2012 class grade: B