An intriguing crop of running backs is highlighted by a couple of home-run prospects at the top, and rounded out by a group of role-players and upside guys who could turn out to be major steals in this year's NFL draft.
Oregon State's Steven Jackson and Virginia Tech's Kevin Jones are the cream of the running back crop. Jackson, 6-2, 235, is a big, powerful runner who is perfect for a team who wants to dominate the line of scrimmage. Jones, 6-0, 227, has game-breaking ability.
Jaguars.com draft analyst Tony Pauline expects Jackson to be selected in the top 10 picks, and there are those who agree with Pauline. But Jackson may be the player in this draft on whom there is the greatest range of disagreement. Those who are intrigued by Jackson's size and power are offset by those who consider Jackson to be a lumbering runner.
"He can be a one-man show," Pauline said of Jackson. "He fits a variety of offenses; adequate pass-catcher and a decent blocker. He'll carry the pile, but he's not an explosive back."
Pauline thinks Detroit could be a candidate to select Jackson with the sixth pick.
Jones' draft stock fell recently when he timed a surprisingly-slow 4.6 in the 40-yard dash. It was a particularly damaging workout for Jones, whose strength in the draft is considered to be his breakaway ability. In college, Jones was billed to be a combination of speed and power. He had a monster game late last season against Pitt, breaking off long run after long run, and used his power to flatten Miami safety Sean Taylor in the Hokies' rousing win.
"He can be electrifying in making defenders miss; great burst of speed. He timed poorly in the pro day, but he plays much faster," Pauline said.
Jones' pro-day workout was aided, however, by an impressive pass-catching performance. Heading into the final month before the draft, Jones is sort of a wild-card player. If he submits himself to another workout and improves his 40 time, he could shoot up. But if he runs bad again, he'd probably cement himself as a second-half-of-the-first-round pick.
Pauline believes Jackson and Jones will be immediate starters for whatever teams draft them.
Florida State's Greg Jones, 6-1, 249, might have been the top back in this draft, had it not been for a severe knee injury late in the 2002 season. Jones underwent reconstructive knee surgery in November of '02 and showed signs last season of not having fully recovered. So what will a team drafting him get? A guy who's shot? Or a guy who's about to regain the form that made him the best power runner in the country early in the '02 season?
"He's a powerful, dominant back who has good run instincts and vision. He knows how to follow blocks and has adequate skills for running outside the tackles," Pauline said of Jones, who could be a candidate to be drafted by the Steelers in the second round.
Will Chris Perry be another in a long line of disappointing Michigan running backs? Opinions are mixed. Some would answer yes, while others believe Perry is perfect for the pro game.
Perry, 6-0, 224, may make his mark in the pro game as a pass-catcher out of the backfield. He's an outstanding receiver who should provide immediate impact as a third-down back. Pauline believes that will buy Perry time to develop his running skills, which didn't surface at Michigan until his senior year.
"He has the skills to be a starter, but was his senior year for real?" Pauline said of Perry, who's projected to be picked in the middle of the second round.
Notre Dame's Julius Jones, 5-10, 217, could be one of those second-round "steals." Jones is effective running inside and outside and had a big year last season after having been academically ineligible in 2002. His career has also been hampered by minor injuries, but if his problems are behind him, he has the skills to be a big-time back in the NFL.
"He's rounding into a complete back," Pauline said of Jones, the brother of former first-round pick Thomas Jones.
Oklahoma State's Tatum Bell, 5-11, 212, is, yet, another second-round possibility. Bell is quick through the hole and mixes straight-line speed with a little wiggle, but he's strictly a north-south runner. Outside the tackles, his speed diminishes quickly. He might fit best in a rotation system.
Mewelde Moore, 5-10, 209, of Tulane, is the prototypical third-down back. He's not fast but he's elusive. Moore is only an adequate ball-carrier, but a distinct threat as a pass-catcher. He'd represent great value in the third round.
Michael Turner, 5-10, 237, of Northern Illinois has do-it-all talent. He's a powerful inside runner who has the speed to get around the corner and beat defenders. Turner has major upside potential, but there are questions about his intensity and his passion for the game. He looked slow at the Senior Bowl and, though his talents will attract a team in the third round, he represents significant risk.
Iowa's Fred Russell, 5-7, 195, is an Amos Zereoue look-alike. Russell is short and powerful, plays hard and is shifty in the open field. He's a true change-of-pace runner, but he'll have to improve his hands before he can return dividends in the passing game. He's a third-round candidate.
Cedric Cobbs, 6-0, 223, of Arkansas, is this draft's boom-or-bust prospect. Cobbs was a star as a freshman, but the next two years were wiped out by injuries and legal problems. Cobbs pleaded guilty to DUI and marijuana charges, but has submitted himself to monthly drug-testing since January of 2002.
Cobbs had a great senior season in '03. He looked great early in the week at the Senior Bowl, but finished the week nursing a hamstring pull. He developed a reputation in college for always be nicked up and got the rap for being a soft back. He ran slow, 4.73, at the scouting combine, but he plays faster than that. Cobbs is the perfect pick for a team wanting to swing for the fence.
As usual, the fullback class offers few home-run prospects.
Tennessee's Troy Fleming, 6-0, 230, can run and catch, but he must improve his blocking. He has yet to embrace the fullback role. Expect him to go in the third round.
Thomas Tapeh, 6-1, 245, of Minnesota, is similar to Fleming. Tapeh wasn't used much in the fullback role, but that's where he'll have to play in the NFL. He offers pass-catching skills at the position. He's also a third-round candidate.
Mark Pierce, 5-11, 240, of Arkansas, is athletic but unpolished. Pierce is fierce and competitive, but has also had off-the-field problems. He's a second-dayer.
Travis Wilson, 6-3, 256, of Kansas State, is the traditional blocking fullback. He has no offensive skills.
Pitt's Lousaka Polite, 5-11, 246, is an intense player who developed the reputation for doing the dirty work. Polite is a strong short-yardage and goal-line runner, but his blocking is only adequate and he's no factor in the passing game.
Pauline will provide jaguars.com with updates up to the draft. His draft guide may be purchased by visiting his web site at tfydraft.com.