Alabama's Ingram only sure first-rounder
The increasing emphasis on the passing game, the success of players taken with low draft picks, or undrafted entirely, and the dearth of top prospects in recent years has led to the theory that the running back position is becoming marginalized.
This year's draft class certainly supports that theory. The only running back expected to be taken in the first round is Mark Ingram of Alabama and, despite a Heisman Trophy and a national championship on his resume, he's projected in the middle of the round.
Not that long ago, this was a glamour position, a place where rookies could step right in and have a big impact. Marshall Faulk broke in with 1,282 yards in 1994. Edgerrin James debuted with 1,553 rushing yards and more than 2,000 total in 1999.
The previous two draft classes have yielded nothing close. The highest pick, C.J. Spiller, taken No. 9 by Buffalo last year, managed just 283 yards as a rookie while former undrafted free agent Arian Foster of Houston led the league in rushing.
Five running backs have been selected with first-round picks in the past two drafts: Spiller, Ryan Mathews (No. 12 to San Diego in 2010), Knowshon Moreno (No. 12 to Denver in 2009), Donald Brown (No. 27 to the Colts in 2009) and Beanie Wells (No. 31 to Arizona in 2009).
"For me, it's pretty simple," said draft analyst Mike Mayock of NFL Network. "If there's a guy, a special running back out there like an Adrian Peterson, you treat it like a special athlete at any position and you covet it and you try to get it.
"Beyond that, I think what we're seeing is running back by tandem throughout the NFL. You either get a couple of guys that can split the load or similar type of players, or you get two different kinds of guys. You get that two-down guy, the bigger downhill, one cutback, and complement him with a third-down change-of-pace guy.
"I think we've all seen, because it's a pass-first league, that the running back position has been denigrated a little bit. I think there are plenty of guys in every draft, and especially this year. You can drop down to the third, fourth, fifth round and get a quality running back to fit your system."
Such is the talk that fuels Ingram. A powerful runner who dominated in 2009 when he rushed for 1,658 yards and 17 touchdowns on his way to the Heisman in Alabama's 14-0 national championship season, Ingram was slowed by a knee injury for part of 2010.
He missed the first two games of the season and then came in with a flourish, totaling 308 yards and four touchdowns in his first two outings. He didn't approach that type of production the rest of the year, finishing with 875 yards and 13 touchdowns while sharing the load with Trent Richardson.
"You better pick a quarterback, you better pick a defensive lineman, offensive lineman, corner (in the top 10) … you can't find those in free agency. They're very difficult to find," said Michael Lombardi of NFL Network. "In the top 10, you better pick what you can't sign. Running backs, you can find them."
Ingram has worked hard to answer questions about his weight, his speed and ultimately the stability of his knee. He has worked with a trainer to trim his physique. After running the 40 in the 4.6s at the NFL Scouting Combine, he said he ran a 4.4 at his pro day recently in Tuscaloosa.
"My knee feels great. It's a non-issue," Ingram said. "I was just a little too heavy, I thought, personally. I felt I could be more explosive at a lighter weight. I've played faster at a lighter weight. So for the past six weeks training, one of my main focuses has been just losing a few pounds so I can perform to the best of my ability."
But speed ultimately is not the key to his game. Ingram is a between-the-tackles chain-mover. Faulk, for one, compared him to Emmitt Smith.
"When you look at (Ingram) play, you understand what I'm talking about," Faulk said. "Mark Ingram, he runs angry. He's a guy that when I look at Emmitt Smith and how his career went and how he played in the NFL, I say Mark Ingram can be an Emmitt Smith."
Others aren't so sure.
"It's hard to compare anybody to Emmitt Smith," Lombardi said. "That's always a difficult one. I think Mark Ingram is kind of a unique player. He's more of a power back that's not as big as those power backs. And I think that every back has his own unique style and his balance is incredible and he always gets yards after contact which makes him a very effective player in the league. So I don't know about the Emmitt (comparison). Just to be in the same category would be classic."
Ingram said he is honored by the comparison but doesn't feel pressured to fulfill those expectations.
"It's just a comparison. Everybody is entitled to their own opinion. People get compared all the time," he said. "But I don't feel like I'm entitled to live up to being like Emmitt. Of course I'm going to try to be the best player I can be definitely, and take it one step at a time.
"I'm just a focused and determined person. I'm real competitive, and I'm real driven. I'm going to try and be the best person I can be and the best player I can be every single day, and helping a team win championships."
As the top prospect, and the closest thing to an elite prospect, at his position, Ingram is carrying the banner for running backs this year. He hopes he can begin to reverse the current trend. After all, it was only three years ago that five running backs went in the first round, three of whom have emerged as among the league's best – Chris Johnson of Tennessee, Rashard Mendenhall of Pittsburgh and Darren McFadden of Oakland.
"It's important to me just to go out there and just put my best show on, the best effort I have and just do the best that I can," Ingram said. "And whatever happens from that, that's what happens."
BREAKING DOWN THE 2011 NFL DRAFT'S TOP RUNNING BACKS
Ingram has the combination of power, vision and leverage to be at least a two-down back in the NFL. Other top prospects include Oklahoma's DeMarco Murray, whose all-around skills as a runner, receiver and return specialist are attractive, Illinois' Mikel Leshoure, who like Ingram has chain-moving potential, Shane Vereen of California, who hopes to follow in the footsteps of Marshawn Lynch and Justin Forsett, and Virginia Tech's Ryan Williams.
THE LAST FIVE
The last five running backs drafted by the Colts . . .
2009: Donald Brown, first round, Connecticut
2008: Mike Hart, sixth round, Michigan
2006: Joseph Addai, first round, LSU
2005: Anthony Davis, seventh round, Wisconsin
2002: Brian Allen, sixth round, Stanford
THIS YEAR'S DRAFT
An alphabetical list of 15 running backs expected to be selected in the 2011 NFL Draft . . .
Delone Carter, Syracuse
*Jamie Harper, Clemson
Kendall Hunter, Oklahoma State
*Mark Ingram, Alabama
*Mikel Leshoure, Illinois
Derrick Locke, Kentucky
DeMarco Murray, Oklahoma
Bilal Powell, Louisville
*Stevan Ridley, LSU
*Jacquizz Rodgers, Oregon State
Daniel Thomas, Kansas State
*Jordan Todman, Connecticut
*Shane Vereen, California
*Ryan Williams, Virginia Tech
Johnny White, North Carolina
Note: The content in this story and in the series of draft-eligible players that appears on Colts.com in no way reflects the position of the Indianapolis Colts.