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February 23, 2008

Juniors strengthen running back crop

MORE: Rivals.com coverage from the NFL Scouting Combine

INDIANAPOLIS - As he discusses the qualities that helped make him a potential first-round pick, former Oregon running back Jonathan Stewart doesn't bother hiding behind false modesty.

"You don't usually see a player my size at this position being able to do the things I can do," the 5-foot-10, 235-pound Stewart said Friday at the NFL Scouting Combine. "I'm explosive. I have good lateral movement and great speed as well. Put those things together and you're going to get something great."

Stewart's peers are feeling equally confident these days.

When eight junior running backs decided to turn pro instead of returning for their senior seasons, it turned a relatively weak position into one of the strongest in this year's draft.

"If you need a running back," San Francisco 49ers general manager Scot McCloughan said, "this is a good year to get one."

It would be hard to find a better year.

This group of running backs might not be as strong at the top as the 2005 class, which featured Auburn teammates Ronnie Brown and Cadillac Williams and Texas' Cedric Benson all getting taken among the first five overall picks.

And it might not feature anyone who can make as much of an immediate impact as Adrian Peterson, the former Oklahoma star who led the NFC with 1,341 rushing yards in his rookie season with the Minnesota Vikings.

But it just might boast as much depth as any recent rookie class of running backs.

Frank Coyle of draftinsiders.com includes 13 running backs in his list of the top 100 overall prospects. His mock draft has Arkansas' Darren McFadden going to the New York Jets with the sixth overall pick, the Houston Texans taking Stewart at the No. 18 spot, Illinois' Rashard Mendenhall going 25th to the Seattle Seahawks and the San Diego Chargers using the 27th pick on Arkansas' Felix Jones.

"This could be a benchmark class, even if there's no Peterson," Coyle said.

JUNIOR ACHIEVEMENT
A look at the first round of the last two NFL Drafts shows the recent emphasis toward junior running backs. Juniors are listed in bold.
NameSchoolTeamPickYear
Reggie Bush USCNew Orleans22006
Laurence Maroney MinnesotaNew England212006
DeAngelo WilliamsMemphisCarolina272006
Joseph AddaiLSUIndianapolis302006
Adrian Peterson OklahomaMinnesota72007
Marshawn Lynch CaliforniaBuffalo122007
Of course, it wouldn't be nearly as strong without all those underclassmen. Coyle rates all eight of the junior running backs McFadden, Stewart, Mendenhall, Jones, West Virginia's Steve Slaton, Texas' Jamaal Charles, UCF's Kevin Smith and Rutgers' Ray Rice ahead of the top senior at that position.

The first senior running back probably won't be taken until East Carolina's Chris Johnson or Michigan's Mike Hart goes in about the third round.

Don't think for a moment that the juniors failed to realize this before entering the draft.

"Everybody knows it was a weak (senior) running back class," Charles said. "That was an extra reason why it was good to come out."

The senior running backs haven't exactly taken offense to those kinds of comments. Hart understood why so many juniors decided to turn pro now.

"It didn't surprise me at all," Hart said. "Obviously the senior running back class isn't as strong as it's been in the past. I would have come out if I was a junior, too."

This isn't the first year that junior running backs have overshadowed the seniors. Each of the last two years, two junior running backs have been taken before the first senior running back was selected.

The trend toward juniors has become so pronounced that 2005 almost seems like it took place an eternity ago. That's the year that Brown, Williams and Benson all profited from staying in school for a senior year.

The underclassmen and NFL officials couldn't necessarily come up with a reason for why juniors have taken precedence the last two years. Perhaps a junior benefits from having absorbed less of a beating in his college career than a senior, but at least one team official didn't consider that a major issue.

"I don't think that's much of a factor," Washington Redskins vice president of football operations Vinny Cerrato said. "Maybe you happen to have less carries or less wear and tear on your body, but the bottom line with a back is how does he fit in with what you want to do. How smart is he? Is he a good blocker? Can he catch? Can he run? I think that's more important than his number of carries."

A RUN ON JUNIORS?
Frank Coyle of draftinsiders.com rates all eight junior running backs ahead of the top senior at the position (East Carolina's Chris Johnson). Here's a look at the top eight running backs in Coyle's rankings.
RankingNameSchool
7Darren McFaddenArkansas
11Jonathan StewartOregon
13Rashard MendenhallIllinois
24Felix JonesArkansas
44Steve SlatonWest Virginia
46Jamaal CharlesTexas
51Kevin SmithUCF
54Ray RiceRutgers
While it's difficult to understand the reason teams have gravitated toward junior running backs the last couple of years, it's easy to understand why players have been so willing to make the jump a year early.

"I think a lot of guys are like myself," Slaton said. "The NFL was their dream. As soon as we have a chance to get there, we want to take it."

But they might have to pay for that decision, at least in the short term.

The presence of so many quality running backs might cause at least a few players to get taken much later than they expected.

For instance, McFadden is generally considered the top running back and one of the top five overall players in this draft class. As much as he likes McFadden, Coyle said he'd hesitate to take the former Arkansas star this early when so many good running backs could be available later in the draft.

"Some weird things are going to happen with this running back class," Coyle said. "There are so many talented kids. I wouldn't take McFadden in the top 10. My attitude would be, 'You mean to tell me Felix Jones might be available in the second round? Ray Rice?' ''

The suddenly crowded field of running back prospects hasn't caused any of these juniors to second-guess their decisions to turn pro.

They believe they're ready for the next level and spent their media sessions Friday explaining why they stand out from the rest of the prospects.

"I feel like I'm the best player in the draft," McFadden said.

The seniors aren't about to back away from the challenge.

"I think I'm the best running back in the country, obviously," Hart said. "I don't think anyone's better than me. If you're a running back, that's how you have to think. They're talented, though. Everyone who came out is talented. They're all going to be real competitive in the NFL."

And the competition among them has already started.

MORE: Rivals.com coverage from the NFL Scouting Combine

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.



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