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.

Follow the Scores Report editors on Twitter @clevelandteams and @bullzeyedotcom.

2012 NFL Draft: Breaking down the Quarterbacks

Throughout the next couple of months I’ll take a look at each position group leading up to the 2012 NFL Draft. Where should we start? Well at quarterback, of course.

Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck (L) avoids the rush of Oregon State lineman Andrew Seumalo (49) during the second half of their NCAA football game in Corvallis, Oregon, November 5, 2011. REUTERS/Steve Dipaola (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

The Best in Class: Andrew Luck, Stanford
There are many scouts who are intrigued by Robert Griffin III’s skill set and natural feel for the game, so there will be plenty of people suggesting that Griffin should be the first signal caller off the board in April. But “pound for pound” Luck is still the top quarterback prospect in this draft, if not the top all-around prospect, period. What impresses me most about Luck is his pocket awareness. He anticipates pressure and reacts to it instead of looking for it at the snap. He also keeps his eyes down the field, which is an attribute that all of the elite NFL quarterbacks posses. He goes through his progressions well, displays sound footwork, and has a better arm than people give him credit for. He’s also extremely bright, as evidence of his ability to call plays at the line of scrimmage in Stanford’s offense, and you rarely see him get frazzled. At this point Luck looks like a safe bet at the top of the draft, which is saying a lot considering the position he plays.

The Challenger: Robert Griffin III, Baylor
It appears that the Colts are set on taking Luck with the No. 1 overall pick but Griffin has plenty of time to change their minds. A smart, savvy player with the ability to create using his arm or his legs, Griffin has improved as a passer every year he’s been at Baylor. He has very good arm strength and can fit the ball into tight windows at the second level. He’s also a natural athlete with a high ceiling and plenty of room to grow if a team surrounds him with the right coaching staff. The main knock on Griffin is that he isn’t comfortable taking snaps from under center and isn’t particularly strong at reading the blitz at the snap. But he seems more “boom” than “bust” and certainly has the attention of fans in Cleveland.

Don’t Sleep On: Brandon Weeden, Oklahoma State
Weeden isn’t drawing the same attention as Luck, Griffin, or even Texas A&M’s Ryan Tannehill. But at 6-foot-4 with a big, accurate arm, Weeden is worth a long look for quarterback-needy teams looking to either move up into the late first round or early second. His age (28) might scare teams away but the fact remains that he has all of the physical attributes and intangibles that pro teams look for in a quarterback. There are some concerns about his inconsistency and he has a habit of forcing throws into coverage, but he could be a perfect fit for teams like the Jets, Seahawks or Broncos.

Mid-Round Sleeper: Ryan Lindley, San Diego State
The biggest knock on Lindley is that he needs to improve his overall footwork and coordination inside the pocket. Thus, this isn’t a prospect that a team can plug into their offense and have him start in year one or two. But at 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, Lindley looks the part and has very good arm strength. He can make all of the throws at the next level and is an accurate passer. He would be perfect for a team that already has its starter in place but is looking to groom a developmental quarterback for down the line (i.e. the Giants, Falcons or Packers).

Buzz building for Courtney Upshaw

University of Alabama linebacker Courtney Upshaw speaks to reporters during Media Day before his team take on Louisiana State University in the NCAA BCS National Championship, scheduled for January 9, in New Orleans, Louisiana January 6, 2012. REUTERS/Sean Gardner (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

This kid is a beast and he’s likely moving up on many draft boards.

Will Courtney Upshaw be a defensive end or an outside linebacker in the NFL? The Alabama star and surefire first-round pick has insisted throughout Senior Bowl week that he has no preference.

But this much seems assured: The preference of opposing offensive tackles would be that he take up another line of work.

One of the standouts of a dominating Crimson Tide defense, Upshaw has had a fine week of practice at the Senior Bowl. He has worked with the defensive ends throughout the week, though he plans to do OLB drills at the Combine and at Alabama’s pro day. However, Upshaw did get some work standing up in a 3-4 look this week, noted Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, a member of the South coaching staff this week.

Haslett is among those who have been impressed by the first-team All-American, who garnered BCS championship game MVP honors with seven tackles and a sack in Alabama’s shutout of LSU.

“He’s a tightly built guy that’s powerful, extremely fast,” Haslett said. “… I think he’s got so much upside. I think he’s a heck of a football player.”

Power is the 6-1½, 273-pound Upshaw’s game, whether he’s playing the run or getting after the quarterback. The opposition knows this. What follows is a lot of pushing — and pulling, as Upshaw noted.

It’s early in the process, but draft mania is already catching fire. With Twitter we now have an outlet where more and more people can discuss topics like the draft. Upshaw will get a ton of attention throughout this process.

2012 Senior Bowl: Five players to Watch

You draftniks ready for another year of speculation, frenzy and intrigue leading up to this year’s NFL draft? Here are five players to keep an eye on this Saturday the 2012 Senior Bowl kicks off from Mobile, Alabama.

Nick Foles, QB, Arizona
The consensus ranks Stanford’s Andrew Luck and Baylor’s Robert Griffin III as the top two quarterbacks in this year’s draft, but who will be the third signal caller to come off the board? Some like Texas A&M’s Ryan Tannehill but keep an eye on how Foles plays this weekend. He’s a big kid at 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds and made strides as a senior this past year despite playing behind two freshman tackles. Arm strength definitely won’t be a problem but his accuracy and decision-making has often been questioned throughout his collegiate career. Once Luck and Griffin come off the board in the top 10 picks, Foles could be selected anywhere between the first and third rounds. Thus, this is one player that could definitely improve his draft stock with a strong showing in Mobile.

Melvin Ingram, DE, South Carolina
Top-rated defensive tackle Devon Still of Penn State will miss the Senior Bowl with a sprained big toe, so here’s Ingram’s chance to steal the spotlight. This isn’t regarded as a very strong draft for pass rushers but Ingram is a raw talent that can get to the quarterback in a variety of ways. He’s a three-technique defensive lineman who proved he could consistently beat blockers on the inside while at South Carolina. That said, 4-3 and 3-4 teams will take a long look at him because he exhibits a fast first step and good burst off the ball. He does a nice job of shedding blockers in the run game as well so again, he’ll intrigue teams that run a 3-4.

Mike Adams, OT, Ohio State
USC’s Matt Kalil and Iowa’s Riley Reiff are projected to be the top two tackles taken off the board but Adams is already gaining some attention in Mobile because of his frame. He’s massive at 6-foot-7 and 323 pounds, with an 82 1/2 –inch wingspan and huge 11-inch hands. Despite his size, he’s a good athlete with natural bend and is being viewed as a left tackle at the next level (as opposed to some college prospects that are forced to move to the right side because of limitations in their game). He was suspended the first two games of the 2009 season for violating team rules, was cited in January of ’09 for misdemeanor possession of drug paraphernalia (chargers were eventually dropped) after being stopped for running a stop sign, and was part of the group that was suspended for “Tattoogate.” But he has all of the physical tools to become a top 15 pick in April.

Joe Adams, WR, Arkansas
The top receiver in this year’s draft, Justin Blackmon, is a junior, while Kendall Wright, Michael Floyd and Nick Toon have all been declared out of the Senior Bowl with various injuries. Thus, Saturday is a great opportunity for a guy like Adams to impress. He returned a punt for a touchdown in Arkansas’ victory over Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl, which was his fourth punt-return TD of the season. He’s a perfect fit in the slot because of his quickness and vertical ability, as well as the fact that he has trouble disengaging defenders at the line. He needs to improve as a route runner but NFL teams will definitely look at him as a returner and a potential No. 3 wideout.

Janoris Jenkins, CB, North Alabama
Jenkins was overshadowed earlier in his college career by former top-10 pick Joe Haden (Browns) at Florida and then was kicked off the team his senior year following his arrest on misdemeanor marijuana charges (his second run in with the law). If he can stay out of trouble this kid has a ton of natural talent and could be a steal in the second or third round. He played a lot of man at North Alabama and has the ability to develop into a very good cover corner at the next level. Because of character concerns he’ll likely fall further in the draft than he should, but he’s got first-round talent.

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