2012 NFL Draft: Breaking down the Running Backs

Throughout the next couple of months I’ll take a look at each position group leading up to the 2012 NFL Draft. After previewing the quarterbacks last week, today I break down the running backs.

Alabama Crimson Tide running back Trent Richardson (3) scores a 34 yard touchdown in the second half of the BCS College Football Championship at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana, on January 9, 2012. Alabama won the game 21-0. UPI/David Tulis

The Best in Class: Trent Richardson, Alabama
At 5-foot-11 and 224 pounds, Richardson is built to withstand the pounding at the NFL level. He has strong legs, a muscular lower half, and runs with a combination of power and explosion. He essentially is everything a power running team looks for in a lead back, which is why some believe he’s the best running back prospect to come out since Adrian Peterson. As of this date, Richardson is the only running back in this year’s class that is projected to be selected in the first round. He’s the real deal and can be viewed as a workhorse in Year 1.

The Challenger: David Wilson, Virginia Tech
Honestly, there is no “challenger” to Richardson. It’s Trent Richardson and then there’s everybody else, although that isn’t intended to be a knock on the rest of the backs in this year’s draft. There are several backs that are projected to go in the second round or third round that could contribute as rookies. Wilson, for example, isn’t a very big back at 5-foot-10 and 205 pounds, but he runs stronger than you’d think for a guy his size. He has excellent explosion, balance and quickness, and runs a 4.42 to Richardson’s 4.52. While he’ll need to work on being a more patient runner, Wilson should contribute as a rookie and could start in his second year assuming he learns how to pick up the blitz.

Don’t Sleep On: Cyrus Gray, Texas A&M
Gray will likely never be an every down workhorse in the NFL like Richardson is projected to be, but that shouldn’t matter much. The NFL is a passing league now and a backfield committee approach is quickly becoming the norm. Gray isn’t very dynamic but he’s a natural runner with very good instincts who can decipher information quickly. He also possesses good balance and has the size to take a pounding at the next level. Again, he may not be a lead back but he can be productive as the second runner in a two-back system. He’s projected to go somewhere in the third round.

Mid-Round Sleeper: LeMichael James, Oregon
More quick-footed than fast, James will draw comparisons to Falcons’ 2011 fifth-round pick Jacquizz Rodgers because of his scat back abilities. James will be severely limited as an inside runner but put him in the hands of a creative offensive coordinator and he could be a weapon on third downs. He’s a natural pass catcher and his vision allows him to find daylight quickly. He constantly makes defenders miss in open space and he also has experience on special teams as a return man. Oregon’s all-time leader in rushing (4,923) and rushing touchdowns (52), James is worth a flier in the middle rounds (fourth – sixth) for a team looking to add more playmakers on offense.

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