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January 17, 2008

Shrine Game backs hope to be next sleepers

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HOUSTON As a linebacker chased a running back down the sideline during an East-West Shrine Game practice Wednesday, it became clear the tackler and the tacklee would soon spill out of bounds.

Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson watched the play develop from the sideline and good-naturedly said "don't run me over" as the linebacker pushed the running back a yard or so past him.

In general, it's a good idea for prospects to avoid collisions with NFL front-office executives in the months leading up to the draft. It especially behooves running backs to be nice to Thompson. After all, he was the GM who traded for an undrafted running back coming off an injury, then saw him rush for 201 yards in a playoff game.

Packers running back Ryan Grant is hardly the first postseason star who was undrafted, and Thompson is hardly the first NFL GM to unearth a hidden gem. He's just the most recent. Grant rushed for 201 yards and three touchdowns in Saturday's 42-20 win over Seattle that sent Green Bay to the NFC title game. Grant ran for 956 yards and eight touchdowns during the regular season.

Like Grant, Pittsburgh Steelers running back Willie Parker - who finished fourth in the league in rushing - was undrafted. Running backs aren't the only players who emerge out of nowhere, they're simply more visible when they do, Thompson said.

"It receives more attention because running back is such a high-profile position," he said.

Of the top 20 rushers in the NFL this season, 10 were drafted in the first round, five more in the second and third rounds and two more in the fourth. The other three were undrafted (Parker, Grant and Tampa Bay's Earnest Graham). As a comparison, three of the 17 Pro Bowl offensive linemen were undrafted.

Playing in a college all-star game is hardly falling through the cracks, but the six at the Shrine Game are considered lesser prospects than probably all the junior running backs who entered the draft early. The Shrine backs also are behind most, if not all, of the backs who will participate in the Senior Bowl next week.

Thus, the six South Carolina's Cory Boyd, Georgia's Thomas Brown, Ole Miss' BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Oklahoma's Allen Patrick, Houston's Anthony Alridge and UTEP's Marcus Thomas must try to distance themselves from one another this week.

Each of the backs in this game seem likely to be second-day picks at best, but each is showing unique facets to his game that could make him valuable to an NFL team.

Though Alridge lacks ideal size he is generously listed at 5 feet 9 he has good speed and has shown ability as a receiver. He worked out with the wide receivers briefly during Wednesday's practice and lined up in the slot several times during passing drills. Brown, who caught only 39 passes in four seasons, has shown surprising skills as a receiver while also working as a kick returner.

UTEP coach Mike Price - who attended Wednesday's practice - sung the praises of Thomas, who arrived in Houston on Tuesday after playing in the Hula Bowl in Hawaii on Saturday.

"There's going to be a lot of running backs available in the draft, so it's going to be very competitive," Price said. "Marcus has a good chance because he can play on all the special teams. He can run inside and outside and can protect. He's an all-around player. He doesn't have the top-end speed that Anthony does, but he's durable; he's a physical runner. All he needs is an opportunity."

At 6 feet 1 and 214 pounds, Boyd has NFL-ready size, and he has been perhaps the best runner in practice so far. Boyd also may be an example of a running back who needs the controlled environment of draft preparations to totally showcase his skills. At South Carolina, he played in a system that passed the ball 54 percent of the time. He also shared tailback duties with Mike Davis. Brown and Patrick also played for teams that divvied up carries at tailback.

"Sometimes guys in college can get caught in a rotation or a coaching change where they want to play a young guy instead of a senior," Thompson said. "I think it just happens (when an unnoticed player later contributes)."

And not every team has to think a prospect can contribute; it just takes one. Players such as Grant - and GMs such as Thompson - are proof of that.

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David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.

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