For the second consecutive year, the first round of the NFL draft may produce only one running back, an Alabama running back, but the talent is thought to deepen as the draft moves toward its middle rounds.
"Trent Richardson is the number one guy, without a doubt, and then it's kind of anyone's guess. There's a large fall off," si.com draft analyst Tony Pauline said. Pauline has been offering critical commentary on the draft class since packers.com began its draft preview coverage at this year's Senior Bowl.
Last year, Alabama Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram was selected 28th overall, the only back chosen over the first 37 selections. Richardson is expected to be a top 10 pick in this year's draft.
Why the decline in first-round running backs? The answer would seem to be that the NFL has clearly become a passing league.
Who will be the second running back selected in this year's draft? Pauline thinks it'll be Boise State's Doug Martin, a do-it-all kind of runner who performed solidly at the Senior Bowl and offers as much value as a pass receiver as he does as a runner.
"I like Doug Martin primarily because he's the most polished, most complete. He's a good ball carrier, pass receiver, blocker, returner. He doesn't do anything spectacularly but does everything well," Pauline said. He expects Martin to go in the second round,
A lot of draftniks have Virginia Tech's David Wilson ranked No. 2, and still others give the nod to Miami's Lamar Miller, who Pauline says only needs some polish to his game. Miller ran 4.37 at the combine and the possibility exists Miller's speed could vault him into the bottom of the first round.
With the next group of runners, the class deepens. The Packers would seem to have need at running back heading into this draft, what with veteran Ryan Grant an undrafted free agent and last year's third-round pick, Alex Green, coming off midseason knee reconstruction.
Pauline sees Cincinnati's Isaiah Pead as a back in the Packers mold, which is to say a guy that fits into the passing game.
"Isaiah Pead is a creative ball carrier, solid pass catcher and also a return specialist. He wasn't asked to block that much; I'm sure he can but he was the main guy at Cincinnati," Pauline said of Pead, a star at the Senior Bowl and a player Pauline projects as a third-round prospect.
"Vick Ballard is a little bit of a bigger guy and an interior runner. He's a solid pass catcher and blocker, a lesser version of Doug Martin, without the return skills," Pauline added. Ballard is from Mississippi State, where he ran behind last year's Packers first-round pick, tackle Derek Sherrod.
Oregon's LaMichael James is an explosive back that ran a 4.39 at the combine. He's in that third-round category, too.
At the back of the draft, Pauline likes Baylor's Terence Ganaway and North Carolina's Ryan Houston.
"Ganaway is a big-body back that can also catch the ball out of the backfield," Pauline said of the 240-pounder. "Houston runs in the 4.7's, was terrific in 2009 as a feature runner. He's very agile and flexible for his size, kind of an under-the-radar guy."
Houston is especially intriguing as he missed the 2010 season due to suspension and then lost his position and carries in 2011 as a result of '10.
"If you're looking for a late-round gem, that's the guy," Pauline said.
There are other such prospects:
Texas A&M's Cyrus Gray is a third-down type of back that ran in the 4.4's and caught well at the combine.
San Diego State's Ronnie Hillman popped a 4.38 at the combine and one scout referred to him as a "Poor Man's Maurice Jones-Drew."
Utah State's Robert Turbin ran 4.46 and was dubbed "best body at the combine."
Teams needing a running back should be able to find one in this draft.