2009 NFL Draft: Top Running Backs

Knowshon MorenoTotal Pro Sports – In today’s NFL offenses, quarterbacks, blue-chip left tackles, and top-flight receivers seem to devour all of the “quan” (from the movie Jerry McGuire—look it up), leaving little left to feed the rest of the pride. The workhorses and bricklayers of championships may receive a lion’s share of the headlines, in some cases, but they often only receive a jackal’s portion of the dollars. Why is that? Quite simply, the game is evolving—exponentially!

Today, most NFL teams use the running game to establish or maintain field position, control time of possession, convert on those tough short-yardage situations, and set up bigger plays in the passing game—anything else is gravy. While balance is essential to consistent successful offense, it is the passing game that delivers the points in most systems. Points are what it’s all about, so quarterbacks, the key people who protect them, and their primary targets are all compensated well.

Running backs have been relegated to supporting roles in most offenses and, most of the time; even that role is split by two or more players. What’s more, running backs are often abused and discarded after they’ve outlived their usefulness, and rarely get that dream contract to finish out their careers. Now more than ever, the best football players in most college programs are running backs. Therefore, there will always be new, younger, and more talented backs to be drafted in each year’s college crop. Unlike other positions, a running back’s “prime” begins in his rookie year, and ends by the time he reaches his 28th birthday, if he even celebrates that day as an NFL player. Those poor souls—theirs is the true gladiator position in a league of prima donnas. Long story short, they are always needed but rarely highly-valued.

What we are seeing in the draft, as a result, is far fewer running backs being selected in the top ten, and more taken in rounds two and three. Unlike in fantasy leagues all over the world, running backs NEVER go number one overall anymore. In fact, in the last twenty years, a running back has been selected number one overall only once, when the Cincinnati Bengals used their first pick in 1995 to take Ki-Jana Carter out of Penn State. Unfortunately, we all know how that decision turned out.

In the last few years, we have begun to see a clear shift in the way teams place the value tag on running backs. It is obvious that the only way backs are drafted in round one is if they have abundant speed, can be threats in the passing game, and can produce touchdowns—IMMEDIATELY. The 2008 NFL draft was highlighted by, in my estimation, the deepest and most talented running back class of all time. Five players from that outstanding class were selected in the first round, beginning with Oakland’s Darren McFadden at number four overall. The SLOWEST forty-yard-dash posted by any of them was a 4.48 by Jonathan Stewart, and he was drafted to be a power back in the two-headed system that Carolina uses. The fastest time in the entire combine, at any position, belonged to Titans speedster Chris Johnson, who blew coaches and scouts away with a blistering 4.24. Drafted with the 24th pick, Johnson too was used in a backfield duo with power back, and former second rounder, LenDale White.

This year’s class is not nearly as deep as last year’s, but the first round will feature two players that will do what a first round back in today’s game is supposed to do—score points. My top running back in the 2009 NFL Draft is Knowshon Moreno, from the University of Georgia. It was evident the very first time I saw him carry the football, during his freshman year, that Moreno would be a first round pick. He has excellent speed, expecting to run in the low 4.4’s at the combine, decent size (about 210 lbs), and is a polished receiver, amassing 33 receptions for nearly 400 yards in his sophomore season at Georgia.

He is a big play threat whenever he touches the ball, accumulating a 5.6 yard per carry average behind a pedestrian offensive line in the very tough SEC, while scoring a total of 18 touchdowns in 2008. Moreno’s physical skill set includes a rare burst through the hole, and a fluidity that reminds me of Chris Johnson. He often changes direction without breaking stride, displaying tremendous quickness, leaving defenders with broken ankles and injured pride all over the field. He also displays surprising power for a man of his size, and finishes his runs with authority. This is not a guy who is going to run out of bounds very often, and prefers to deliver a blow rather than receive one. While his physical skills are impressive, it is his patience, vision, and ability to navigate through traffic and pick up extra yards that makes him the best back in this class. He uses his blockers very well, consistently setting opposing players up to be out of position when he makes his cut.

Moreno seems to have a sixth sense, at times, displaying an uncanny ability to feel the flow of the defense converging and adjusting his course to find the opening. No one compares to Hall of Famer Barry Sanders, and I doubt anyone ever will, but Moreno seems to have eyes in the back of his head the way Barry did, and has the same ability to stop on a dime, go from zero to sixty with just a few steps, and turn a short gain into six.

The best word I can use to describe Knowshon Moreno is “special”. I have him graded as a top ten pick, but doubt that my view is shared by any of the teams in the top ten, primarily due to needs and the number of highly rated players available. He will carry tremendous value starting at eleventh overall, and I fully expect Denver to take him at twelve. Historically, Denver has been a team which has consistently chosen to pass on first round running backs, and they do have defensive issues to address. Moreno is such a unique talent, however, that the Broncos will give serious consideration to making an exception in his case. Arizona would love for Moreno to slide to them at the twenty-first spot, but that is unlikely to happen. He should draw enough interest that teams will likely try trading up to take him if Denver passes. When all is said and done, I believe that he’ll go in the top 15 and will be a rookie of the year contender in 2009, barring injury.

It just sounds wrong to suggest that Ohio State’s Chris “Beanie” Wells could be second to any other running back prospect, doesn’t it? How could a player with 4.48 speed, weighing 235 lbs be second to anyone?

Well, that happens to be the case in this draft. That’s how good Moreno is! Wells is also very unique in that his size/speed combination is rare to find at any level. His scouting report will read much shorter than Moreno’s, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be less effective in the NFL. If Moreno were Michael Jordan, that would make Wells Shaquille O’Neal. So, what if he doesn’t have a jump shot? He can carry two defenders toward the backboard on his way to bringing it down! He don’t need no stinkin’ jump shot!

Wells’ skills are definitely best suited for a cold weather climate, where traction is often an issue, and field position is extremely valuable. He reminds me of a young Larry Johnson, but with a better burst. Wells is primarily a one-cut grinder who hits the hole quickly, runs behind his pads extremely well, and goes north and south with THUNDER. He’s got a tremendous stiff arm, amazing acceleration, excellent balance, and shows consistent patience to read and follow his blocks. He’s not going to make many people miss in the NFL, but most of them will be trying to get out of his way anyway. He has good field vision, has the burst to get to the edge, and enough straight line speed to hit the home run occasionally. He will face eight man boxes in the NFL, just like he did at OSU, so he will have his opportunities for big runs after he breaks through the line and sees the quivering lips of petrified DB’s. He is the definition of a workhorse back, and should get some looks early in the draft by Cleveland at number five, Cincinatti at number six, and possibly Green Bay at number nine.

Wells is a player that could slide substantially, because he is not a great receiver out of the backfield, and has only been used in the passing game on an occasional screen play. The only teams in the top twenty-five that would value a running back with his skill set currently sit in the top ten. As deep as the top end talent is in this draft, I doubt that any of them will pass on the other available players which present a better value at those slots. I have him graded as a top fifteen pick, in terms of talent, with excellent value beginning at sixteen overall. If he slides into the twenties, look for Cleveland or Cincinnati to trade back into the first round to take him.

While Moreno and Wells are the only two first round locks in this draft, LeSean McCoy from the University of Pittsburgh, and Shonn Greene from Iowa could possibly sneak into round one. McCoy is the quintessential “scat-back”, while Green is the exact opposite. Out of the Reggie Bush mold, McCoy is an extremely fast and elusive homerun hitter, but will have trouble in the NFL between the tackles. He, like Bush, has a tendency to bounce everything outside. He is best suited to be a change of pace back on third downs, or a speed guy in a two-headed attack. I have him graded as a second round pick, but many analysts have him going in round one. He is a guy that definitely needs the right system, and should be drafted with caution.

Shonn Greene is an excellent runner between the tackles, but lacks the speed to get around the edge consistently in the NFL. He is not a proven receiver and, again, needs the right system to be successful. A quicker version of LenDale White, he will be best out of the I-Formation playing on first and second downs. I also have him graded as a second round prospect, but am more optimistic about his ability to be successful in the NFL than McCoy’s. Greene is a tough football player who runs hard, is consistent, though not flashy, and will be the steal of the second round, much as Matt Forte was last year. Everything will depend on his role. If he lands a starting job out of training camp, he could be competing for Rookie of the Year honors in ‘09.

You determine the next topic in the “Let’s Talk Talent” series. Tell me which players, positions, or teams that you want analyzed, and I’ll put them under the microscope. Leave your questions or comments below. I’ll be checking back frequently.

Tags: 2009 NFL Draft, Barry Sanders, Chris 'Beanie' Wells, Chris Johnson, Darren McFadden, Jonathan Stewart, Ki-Jana Carter, Knowshon Moreno, Larry Johnson, LenDale White, LeSean McCoy, michael jordan, running backs, shaquille oneal, Shonn Greene,