Newyorkjets.com's coverage of the 2012 draft includes breakdowns of each position group, the Jets' needs at the spot, and the top players expected to be selected at the position from April 26-28. Today's sixth in the series: Running Backs/Fullbacks.
The passing game has been ascendant and running backs have had a decreasing profile in today's NFL. And one way of quantifying that development is by looking at the draft.
Since the NFL and AFL began their common draft in 1967, there have been exactly two drafts in which only one running back was selected in Round 1. The first was 1984. The most recent was a year ago, when Alabama's Mark Ingram was the sole RB in the first 32 picks, going 28th to the Saints.
And in a few weeks we could be looking at our second such draft in two years.
The top back in this draft is not in dispute. A year after Ingram made the leap, 'Bama's Trent Richardsonis ready for his name to be called in the first hour of Round 1 on Thursday night, April 26. Many big mockers see him going to Cleveland with the fourth pick. As Clark Judge says on CBS Sports Line sees it, "The Browns must find playmakers to station around beleaguered quarterback Colt McCoy. This is the first piece to the puzzle."
And if the Brownies turn toward WR Justin Blackmon instead, the rest of the draft analysts seem to think Tampa Bay would be ready to snap him up at No. 5.
And what's not to like with the 5'9", 228-pound Richardson as a top-five pick? He was a Heisman finalist last year after reaching the 100-yard mark in nine games and accounting for 1,976 all-purpose yards in the regular season. A powerful runner who breaks tackles and has the speed to get to the outside, he had 34 rushes of 12 yards or more in 2011 and his 20 rushing TDs were second most in a season in SEC history — only the Jets' new QB, Tim Tebow, had more with 23 for Florida.
After Trent, a Scramble for No. 2
But after Richardson, RB fanatics may have to cool their heels for a while. Many observers think the next back won't go until Round 2 (although the estimablePat Kirwan of CBS SportsLine and Sirius/XM NFL Radio does not agree, having four backs in his latest first-round mock). And if another back sneaks into the Thursday lineup, it may well be late at night. That No. 2 back could be one of three contenders (details below).
Might the Jets be interested in any of these backs? It's hard to say. They have a young roster of backs with a lot or even a little NFL experience, with LaDainian Tomlinson on the market as an unrestricted free agent. Fourth-year man Shonn Greene will return as the feature back after picking up steam and finishing with his first 1,000-yard season as a pro. Joe McKnight has gotten reps and shown flashes of brilliance outside his NFL-leading 31.6-yard kickoff-return average. Bilal Powell got his feet wet in limited action as a rookie. John Conner is entrenched as the fullback when the Green & White go to their power game.
And then there is Tebow, who in addition to being listed as Mark Sanchez's backup at QB is being counted on to contribute some of his dashing Wildcat-style rushes to the offensive mix.
If there is a back that has caught the eye of general manager Mike Tannenbaum and his draft team, it could come from the tier of backs below Richardson.
Wilson, Martin and Miller
Who will the second back be? It could be David Wilson, a former high school track star who was arguably the most athletic RB at the NFL Combine workouts. The 5'10", 206-pound Virginia Tech junior easily churned out the best vertical leap at 41'0" and the best broad jump at 11'0" in Lucas Oil Stadium. He also sped to an unofficial 4.29-second 40 in a 2009 workout, and all of those skills helped him compile 4,349 all-purpose yards and 25 TDs in his three Hokies seasons.
Wilson also has a little showman in him — Frank Cooney of NFLDraftScout.com details some of his good-natured hijinks, such as wearing a suit and hat to some of his college classes (he even wore a suit to his combine interviews) and doing 10 consecutive backflips before last year's game when the Hokies were going for their 10th straight win.
"I just like to have fun," Wilson explains, "and I guess I'm not very bashful."
Also in the running for the second back taken is Doug Martin. The Boise State back, a compact runner who loves to run inside and seek defenders to hit, had a final season of 1,299 rushing yards and 19 total touchdowns. And he also had a great showing at the combine, topped by his 28 reps in the 225-pound benchpress, which tied for the best total among the RBs gathered in Indy.
Or No. 2 could be Lamar Miller, liked by some because he has the speed to run away from defenders — his 4.40 in the 40 was the fastest time among all RBs at the combine. Despite having two years of eligibility remaining, Miller (5'11", 212) decided to leave Miami and pursue his pro aspirations. He became a starter in '11 and finished second in the ACC with 1,272 yards on the ground.
Then There's James, Polk and Pead
If there's a Friday run on backs, Oregon's LaMichael Jamescould edge into Round 2. Although not the biggest man at 5'8" and 194 pounds, James is as explosive as they come. His 150.4 rushing yards per game last season led the nation and he finished second nationally with 1,805 yards. His numbers were absolutely scintillating down the stretch as he had five straight games with at least 142 rushing yards topped by 159 against Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl. All this came as an encore to 2010, when James led the NCAA with an Oregon-record 1,731 yards.
Washington's Chris Polk has cleared out a mid-round spot, perhaps as high as the second round, after the 5'11", 215-pounder became only the seventh player in Pac-12 history to rush for 4,000 yards — all the more impressive considering, **as Joe Reedy of Cincinnati.com points out**, he was running behind a Huskies O-line that hasn't had an NFL draft choice since 2006.
Cincinnati's Isaiah Pead (5'10", 197) is growing on people. As Vikings coach Leslie Frazier, who coached the North in the Senior Bowl, **said on GoBEARCATS.com**, "Some people may have wondered if he can do certain things. I think he may have answered some questions today." This was after Pead, who ran for 1,338 yards and 12 TDs and earned Big East Offensive Player of the Year and Liberty Bowl MVP honors in his senior season, ran well and returned punts even better to snag the Senior Bowl MVP prize as well.
Who Else? A Couple of Owls
Temple's Bernard Pierce could be a sleeper. He's had some injuries and his measurables are OK. But he put together a 1,481-yard, 21-TD final season for the Philly school, and then showed his determination by improving his 4.49-second time in the 40 at the combine by about a tenth of a second to an unofficial time at or under 4.4 in soggy outdoor conditions at Temple's pro day.
As for fullbacks, this is not a big draft for the pave-the-way dudes. The consensus top FB is Evan Rodriguez (6'2", 239), a backfield mate of Pierce's — and a former teammate of Jets first-round DE Muhammad Wilkerson — at Temple. But the North Bergen, N.J., high schooler is also a consensus fifth-rounder, way down the list. Yet perhaps his receiving skills (69 catches, 871 yards, 7 TDs in his Owls career) will intrigue some team to look at him at TE or H-back.
RB Vick Ballard, Mississippi State; RB Cyrus Gray, Texas A&M; RB Ronnie Hillman, San Diego State; RB Chris Rainey, Florida; RB Robert Turbin, Utah State.
Eric Allen contributed to this preview.