The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have one of the most underrated backs in football already. LeGarrette Blount, despite being an incomplete back in passing situations, is an absolute work-horse type of runner that is capable of toting the rock upwards of 30 times per game if need be.
That being said, a lot of “experts” and many Bucs fans still want Tampa to select Alabama running back Trent Richardson fifth overall this upcoming April.
LGB is the prototypical back for the stated ground-and-pound philosophy Greg Schiano wants to bring to the Buccaneers offense, if anything the Bucs need a change of pace back, lightning to Blount’s thunder. But spending a first rounder on a tailback seems a bit foolish given some of the other needs facing this Buccaneers team at the moment.
Regardless though, this is a solid crop of backs in the 2012 draft class, lead by Richardson, but also featuring a multi-talented array of NFL-ready backs that could be available in the mid-rounds and bring a dynamic element to the Tampa ground game.
Let’s take a look at the top backs in this year’s draft:
1.) Trent Richardson, Alabama, Jr.
Richardson is the guy many non-fans believe the Buccaneers should select in the draft with the fifth overall pick. Given the recent trend with tailbacks though, five is high for any runner. That being said, Richardson pushes the envelope as potentially the best RB available in the draft since Adrian Peterson. It’s rare a kid lives up to his billing, but at Bama Richardson was recruited as one of the top players in the nation and he was living up to that title before the last guy, Heisman winner Mark Ingram, even entered the draft. How often do you hear about the reigning Heisman winner battling for playing time? The Tide had the luxury of that problem when Richardson started pushing Ingram last year. This season, with the backfield to himself Richardson was a Heisman finalist and helped lead a very talented Crimson Tide squad to another national championship. I don’t think Richardson is a good fit in Tampa at five, but bar none he’s the best back in the draft and along with AP he’s arguably the most talented runner to come out in the past decade.
2.) Lamar Millier, Miami (FL), RS-So.
Miller is my favorite back in the draft, even if he’s not the most polished or NFL-ready. Miami has, without a doubt, the best record for putting tailbacks into the NFL of any school in the current NFL era. Edgerrin James, Clinton Portis, Willis McGahee and Frank Gore… enough said? The only question facing Miller in terms of whether he’s ready to join the legacy of great ‘Cane backs is whether he’s willing to put in the work. There a plenty of areas Miller could use some time to develop, he is inexperienced when asked to stay in the backfield and block on passing downs and he doesn’t have a ton of receptions under his belt, but he has perhaps the best collection of tools of any back in the draft. If this were a speculative exercise and we were investing solely on potential returns, Miller would be the stock to buy, but he is a highly developmental back. I think with a year in a good offense, Miller will be ready to become one of the top runners in the NFL, but if he is drafted by a team that lacks the capacity to develop him he could also be a bust. Basically, Lamar Miller will be as good as you can motivate him to be.
3.) Isaiah Pead, Cincinnati, Sr.
I love Isaiah Pead, he plays angry and that’s something you just can’t teach. Pead has a couple of traits that I think will make him a successful NFL back, even in spite of the advantage in athleticism the first two backs on the list have over him. Pead is a north-south runner, he doesn’t goof around trying to make people miss laterally, he has great straight-line burst and once he picks his angle he goes. The NFL is not a league that affords the runner many liberties side-to-side, even Reggie Bush had to learn north-south, Pead’s natural inclination towards that style puts him at an advantage to translate well. Between the tackles, Pead should fit well into most blocking schemes though he still needs to work on his vision a little. Outside, he’s a threat anytime he’s in the open field. He has a above average receiving skills, but the other intangible that sets him apart is his willingness to block. He’s high effort on every play and doesn’t shy away from bigger defenders when asked to pass-pro. He’ll add size and strength in the NFL to take on bigger players with more effectiveness, but he has the mentality and the skills to be surprisingly successful in the right NFL situation.
4.) David Wilson, Virginia Tech, Jr.
Quick, name me the last great Hokie tailback to make it big in the NFL… you can’t? That’s because Virginia Tech doesn’t exactly develop great runners, and that hurts Wilson in my eyes. Frank Beamer is probably the most underrated coach in college football, but in my opinion he develops great college players, not great pro ones. Obviously there are some exceptions, but thus far none at tailback, and I’m not sure Wilson will be different. He is a very talented outside runner with great speed, but between the tackles he’s very raw and not exceptionally instinctive. He has average skills as a receiver, little experience as a blocker and he has had issues with fumbling. That doesn’t spell feature back, but it could make him a great role player. This is where Wilson’s value is high, he’s an extremely high effort back that is extremely fast in the open field. If given the opportunity to find the right system he could be 10-15 carry back that also factors on special teams as a returner. The way the league has gone with regard to specialization of the running back position, Wilson should find a home. He’d be a good fit in Tampa as a compliment to Blount. After getting pounded by the 250 pounder all game, his speed would prove extremely challenging to defenses.
5.) LaMichael James, Oregon, Jr.
Some may say this is high for James but he does a lot of things I like at the next level, even in spite of his size. And his size doesn’t scare me that much, he’s Warrick Dunn’s size and he runs with a similar mentality. Despite his speed and build, James doesn’t push as many runs outside as you would typically expect. Between the tackles, he’s very elusive and has a tendency to squirt into space. Outside and in open space he has exceptional quickness and burst as well as very good top-end speed, he’s very tough to catch. He doesn’t break tackles so much as make tacklers miss, but as such he has great potential as a receiver out of the backfield and he has shown a willingness to block that should let teams keep him on the field more downs. The other thing that sets James apart is his collegiate production, both him and Trent Richardson put up huge numbers for major programs that played lots of big, meanginful games. Production does legitimately mean something and in one of the most high octane offenses in the country, surrounded by weapons, James still lead the nation in rushing with 1,700+ yards in 2011. I think he’s a top five back in this class.
Best of the Rest
6.) Doug Martin, Boise State, Jr.
I really like Martin, but not in Tampa. He’s a very talented, muscular back in a compact frame. He has good quickness and top speed, runs low to the ground and shows ability in the flats as a receiver, but he comes from a pass-first program and struggles at pass-pro, that’s a red flag to me for some reason. Some boards have Martin ranked as high as number two, I think he has that potential, but I’m not as high on him.
7.) Chris Polk, Washington, Sr.
Polk had a fantastic pro day which will likely help his stock, but in terms of production and ability on the field, I wouldn’t rank him any higher than this. He’s a very good inside runner, but lacks explosiveness to take runs long. Still, he’s a solid blocker, breaks tackles well and is above average out of the backfield in the pass game. Polk will find a place to play.
8.) Chris Rainey, Florida, Sr.
I love Rainey’s speed and ability out of the backfield. He’ll make a very good compliment back, he’ll be good on special teams and he could find a place in some teams passing attacks, but he’s not ever going to be an every down back and I have serious questions about his attitude after a string of ugly incidents at the University of Florida.
9.) Bernard Pierce, Temple, Jr.
Pierce has a big frame and runs with good toughness between the tackles, but he’s a bit stiff. He doesn’t have great speed or quickness and he seems a bit rigid in cuts and when changing speed, he also runs too upright for his size which makes him easier to tackle than he should be. Still, with coaching, Pierce could eventually become a legitimate back.
10.) Bobby Rainey, Western Kentucky, Sr.
Kind of a poor man’s Maurice Jones Drew, small, compact frame with good burst and a low center of gravity. Rainey could learn to be a little tougher between the tackles, but has the tools to make the improvement, he’s a solid receiver with decent blocking skills. There are concerns over his age (25 as of next season) and the number of carries he took in college (1,000+), but he should find ways to contribute in the NFL.