Running backs hope to change perceptions at NFL combine – 95.5 WSB
INDIANAPOLIS — (AP) — Kenneth Walker III thinks NFL scouts may be cutting this year’s running back contingent.
He sees a promising group of skilled and versatile players, more than one worthy of being a first-round pick in April. Walker, in fact, could be top of the class after his 2021 season at Michigan State, especially if he tests well by then.
The problem: Many teams find more value waiting to pick up a running back. So Walker and nearly three dozen other runners will spend this week trying to change their minds at the annual NFL scouting meeting in Indianapolis.
“I feel like it’s a goal in my mind, to get drafted early,” Walker said Thursday.
Convincing Scouts to change their ways will not be easy.
With this year’s draft heavy on big players — offensive and defensive linemen — and receivers, it looks light on offensive and splash playmakers out of the backfield. Even the quarterback class has been criticized for its lack of star power.
Yet even though coaches want to talk about winning championships by running the ball and stopping the run, it’s the backs who have taken the biggest hits in recent draft weekends.
Only four have been selected in the first round in the past three seasons, and only twice in the past nine years have four or more been selected in the top 50. While some think this year’s class is solid and deep, it could also be the first time since 2014 and the second in 22 years that no running back has been a first-rounder.
“I love this group of running backs,” NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said last week. said, ‘Let’s just go around the fourth round.’ You’re going to have a good back in round four, especially if you want a bigger back.”
This is a significant change from not too long ago, when top 10 picks were used on Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliott, Leonard Fournette and Saquon Barkley in four successive drafts starting in 2015. Since then, however, no back was selected higher than 24th.
The trend is unlikely to change this year despite a wide range of prospects.
Walker was last season’s leading rusher with 1,646 yards, 15th in yards per carry (6.22) and tied for eighth in touchdowns (18). Jeremiah thinks Walker is running more powerfully than his listed weight of 210 pounds suggests, and Walker’s goal is to run the 40-yard sprint in 4.4 seconds at Indy.
But he’s not even Jeremiah’s best fullback.
That title belongs to Texas A&M’s Isaiah Spiller, who posted consecutive 1,000-yard seasons in 2020 and 2021 and also had 74 receptions over three seasons.
Other top guards include Iowa State star Breece Hall; The national championship-winning Georgia tandem of Zamir White and James Cook III, the younger brother of Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook; and the overpowered Brian Robinson Jr of Alabama.
All of them want to prove they can play three tries in the NFL and are capable of becoming multi-dimensional players like Deebo Samuel and Cordarrelle Patterson.
“These guys are really unique because they can play wide receiver or running back, and I feel like with them you never really know what they’re going to do because they can do so much different things,” Hall said. if every running back was like that, then the game would be better as a whole. But these guys are truly elite athletes and they are one of a kind.
It’s not just the ball carriers who have something to prove.
The quarterbacks, who began training Thursday, have neither a clear favorite to be first off the draft board nor anyone who should be among the top five picks overall.
Quarterbacks have been selected No. 1 or No. 2, or both, every year since 2015.
“There’s a chip on all of our shoulders because they’re saying this class isn’t as good,” Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder said. “But you’re going to see a lot of success from us.”
The running backs follow a similar mantra, which they believe will pay off – if given the chance.
“This class is awesome,” White said. “These guys are really good, they’re really cool guys, they’re smart and they play good football, really all of them.”
AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Stapleton contributed to this article.
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