This year's crop of running backs is headlined by a player jaguars.com draft analyst Tony Pauline believes is the "best prospect in the draft, bar none."
Arkansas junior Darren McFadden, 6-1, 211, is the complete package, possessing a combination of speed and elusiveness. He ran an eye-popping 4.37 40 at the combine.
"He creates a lot of his own yardage. He makes defenders miss and he's a terrific pass-catcher," Pauline said of McFadden.
The two knocks on McFadden are that he has thin legs and doesn't figure to be the power runner NFL teams covet, and that he needs to discipline his personal life.
"On third-and-one he'll come off the field. Because of a lack of need at running back he may slip further than he should," said Pauline, who expects McFadden to be a top six pick, with the Jets at number six being a certain landing spot should McFadden slip.
Pauline compares McFadden favorably to last season's rookie sensation, Adrian Peterson, though McFadden lacks Peterson's power. McFadden declined to lift at the combine.
Illinois junior Rashard Mendenhall, 5-10, 225, is the favorite of the scouts who favor power runners. Mendenhall is a more physical runner than McFadden, but Mendenhall doesn't have McFadden's speed or elusiveness. Mendenhall is more of a straight-line runner. He averaged 4.47 at the combine and did 26 reps on the bench.
"He won't create his own yardage. He's a pounder with a burst and open field speed," said Pauline, who figures Mendenhall to be selected between picks 12 and 15.
Jonathan Stewart, 5-10, 235, of Oregon is a very intriguing prospect because he blends McFadden's and Mendenhall's skills. "He truly is the complete package; the creativity of McFadden and the power of Mendenhall," Pauline said.
Stewart, another one of the juniors that saved this running back class from embarrassment, ran a 4.48 at the combine and did 28 reps.
"He looks the part and plays to it. Minor injuries have raised red flags. I think he's sensational. I would rate him one of the top eight, nine players in draft," Pauline said.
Stewart figures to be a mid-first round pick. He's also a solid pass-catcher.
Arkansas' Felix Jones, a 5-10, 207-pound junior, takes a backseat to McFadden but he could also sneak into the first round. Jones ran 4.49 at the combine, which disappointed most, but it's generally agreed that he plays faster than his combine time. In the open field, he's gone.
"Very elusive, solid pass-catcher; he can develop into an every-downs back," Pauline said.
Fall-off at the position would seem to begin with Tulane's Matt Forte, a 6-1, 217-pound senior. Forte will last into the second round, but some team might get a real steal at that point. Forte was very productive, a one-man show at Tulane. People knew he was getting the ball and they still couldn't stop him. Forte ran a 4.48 at the combine and Pauline compares him to Dorsey Levens.
Jamaal Charles, 5-10, 200, of Texas, is fast and athletic. He's a track sprinter who's trying to become a football player and offers great upside. He ran 4.4 at the combine and that kind of speed will likely earn him selection in the second round.
Scouts love Kevin Smith's production at Central Florida, but the 6-1, 217-pound junior isn't knocking anybody out with his physical skills. He runs a 4.59, didn't show well in UCF's bowl loss and though he gets it done, his skills may not translate well at the next level. He's a late-second round prospect.
Rutgers' Ray Rice may be the best running back, pound for pound in the draft. At 5-8, 199, a lot of teams are going to shy away from Rice due to size concerns, but he's a well-rounded back with 4.47 speed, top pass-catching ability, some between-the-tackles pop and the ability to turn the corner. Rice was a clutch performer at Rutgers, where he carried the ball 900 times in three years. He's a late-second, early-third round prospect.
Want speed? Chris Johnson, 5-10, 197, of East Carolina is your guy. He's a threat to break it big every time he touches the ball. Johnson is a 4.32 who's a better sprinter than he is a football player. He's tabbed for the third round but that kind of speed could make a team reach.
The top fullback in the class is West Virginia's Owen Schmitt, 6-2, 247, a facemask breaker who made one of the highlight plays of the Senior Bowl when Schmitt caught a pass, was walloped by Penn State linebacker Dan Connor, lost his helmet, held onto the ball and kept on running.
Pauline says Schmitt is more athletic than Mike Alstott but lacks the quickness to be a feature runner. He'll be good in short-yardage situations and his soft hands and 4.75 speed fit nicely together. Schmitt's forte, of course, is his blocking ability.
"He's a devastating lead blocker with a nasty attitude. He was in the wrong system," Pauline said of Schmitt, who figures to be a third or fourth-round pick.