Philadelphia, PA – This isn't the best of times to be an NFL running back.
The golden age of one of football's most glorious positions has come and gone, with today's intricate pass-happy offenses, multiple-receiver sets and rules changes intended to encourage a shootout philosophy having rendered the spirit-breaking, 25-carry-a-game backfield punisher of days past a relative dinosaur of the modern pro offense. Though players such as Baltimore's Ray Rice and Chicago's Matt Forte are examples that the every-down back isn't yet completely extinct, the reluctance of their respective teams to offer long- term contracts this offseason only reinforces the belief that the two standouts are part of a dying breed.
The gradual devaluing of running backs was further emphasized at the 2011 NFL Draft, where former Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram was the lone member of the fraternity selected in the first round -- and that didn't come until the 28th overall pick. Only one has been taken in the top 10 of the last three drafts, when Buffalo nabbed C.J. Spiller ninth overall out of a 2009 group in which the best running back -- Houston's Arian Foster -- entered the league as a college free agent.
There are always exceptions to every rule, however. Like Trent Richardson.
Ingram's onetime University of Alabama teammate has forced NFL general managers and personnel evaluators to question the trendy train of thought that a capable running back can be mined in the draft's later rounds (or even beyond, in Foster's case). Blessed with an exceptional combination of power, speed and desire, the 2011 Doak Walker Award recipient is unquestionably one of this season's most talented prospects -- and perhaps the best running back out of the college ranks since Adrian Peterson, who's more than justified the No. 7 overall choice the Minnesota Vikings spent on him in 2007.
Richardson's hard-to-find set of skills should make him a very enticing option for either Cleveland or Tampa Bay, two teams with glaring needs for a bell-cow rusher that own the fourth and fifth picks in the upcoming draft, though there's still a good chance he joins Ingram as the only first-round running back of his class. In fact, the 2012 draft could shape up as a virtual carbon copy of last year's pertaining to the position.
Four running backs came off the board in the second round of the 2011 draft, with three more taken in the third and six in the fourth. Virginia Tech's David Wilson, Boise State's Doug Martin and Miami-Florida's Lamar Miller are all widely considered potential top 50 candidates, and the depth of this year's crop rivals that of the previous one.
A more in-depth look at this year's running back cast can be found below, continuing The Sports Network's preview series of the 2012 NFL Draft:
1) TRENT RICHARDSON, ALABAMA
Height: 5-foot-9; Weight: 228; Age (as of Sept. 1): 21
After sharing time with 2011 first-round pick Mark Ingram in a loaded Alabama backfield his first two seasons, Richardson finally had a featured role last fall and showed just why he was one of the nation's premier prospects coming out of high school. The powerful 21-year-old rushed for nearly 1,700 yards and scored 24 total touchdowns to help the Crimson Tide to a second BCS championship in three years, despite being the focus of opposing defenses that constantly stacked the line of scrimmage to try to neutralize him. A Florida state weightlifting champion in high school, Richardson's tremendous strength and low center of gravity allows him to routinely break tackles between the tackles, and he also has the speed to break containment outside for big gains. He's also a solid receiver and willing pass blocker who relishes physicality, which may have some scouts concerned about his long-term durability down the road.
PROJECTION: As complete a back as you'll find and with a genuine passion for the game, Richardson stands head and shoulders among his incoming peers and merits a top five overall selection. Could slide a bit if both Cleveland (picking fourth) and Tampa Bay (fifth) decide to pass, but still won't last to the second half of the first round.
2) DAVID WILSON, VIRGINIA TECH
Height: 5-10; Weight: 206; Age (as of Sept. 1): 21
Like Richardson, Wilson had to bide his time behind a future high draft choice, spending his first two years as the understudy to Ryan Williams (a 2011 second-round pick by Arizona) before putting together a breakout junior season at Virginia Tech. A track star with the Hokies as well, the reigning ACC Offensive Player of the Year possesses great speed and acceleration and is strong enough to move the pile as an inside runner who isn't afraid of contact. Wilson's return abilities are also an asset, having brought back a pair of kickoffs for touchdowns as a sophomore, and he's demonstrated some feel as a pass-catching outlet to boot, though he's still somewhat raw in that area. He isn't the most instinctive of runners, however, and has had some issues with ball security that will need to be corrected.
PROJECTION: Williams was plucked by the Cardinals with the 38th overall choice of last year's draft, and it's conceivable that Wilson could go even higher than his ex-teammate due to his athleticism and considerable upside. He's not yet a finished product, but will be just 21 years old as a rookie and has less wear-and-tear than many of his counterparts.
3) DOUG MARTIN, BOISE STATE
Height: 5-9; Weight: 223; Age (as of Sept. 1): 23
Martin doesn't have a standout trait, but the former safety is a well-rounded and intelligent player who can do a little bit of everything and has no obvious weaknesses. Compactly built with terrific upper-body and leg strength, he's adept at churning out tough yards inside and can separate from defenders in space, though the ex-Bronco will never be characterized as a true burner. Martin has also exhibited soft hands as a receiver and promise in pass protection, and made his mark as a special-teams ace early in his career before taking over as Boise's main back. That hard-nosed mentality and team- first attitude, along with a history of durability, are all characteristics that will appeal to coaches as well.
PROJECTION: Martin's lack of "wow" factor probably will prevent him from reaching first-round status, but he's a safe and sound prospect with good all- around skills who should hear his name called at some point on the second day.
4) LAMAR MILLER, MIAMI-FLORIDA
Height: 5-11; Weight: 212; Age (as of Sept. 1): 21
A draft-eligible sophomore who played in only 23 games with the Hurricanes, Miller isn't as polished as most of his cohorts, but his talent and potential are undeniable. The heralded college recruit ran a 4.40 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine, fastest among running backs, and can cut and change direction as well as any back in this class. He's also displayed good patience and vision and has the size to be an every-down player in addition to an impact return man, though he was plagued by minor injuries at Miami and was used in a tandem all throughout his career. Miller's core strength could use some improvement as well, as he's not a prototypical power runner, and he's still rather undeveloped in blitz pick-up and recognition.
PROJECTION: Miller's speed and agility will intrigue teams seeking a complementary big-play threat that employ a one-cut, zone-blocking system, but his questionable strength and durability will likely keep him around for the second round.
5) CYRUS GRAY, TEXAS A&M
Height: 5-10; Weight: 206; Age (as of Sept. 1): 22
Transitioning to the NFL shouldn't be much of a problem for Gray, who had success as part of a two-back system in a pro-style offense run by current Miami Dolphins coordinator Mike Sherman at Texas A&M. He's probably ticketed for a similar role at the next level, as he's not a pounder that can wear down defenses or boasts the elite speed and quickness to be a game-breaker. Gray's value instead lies in his versatility and reliability. He's an excellent receiver and return man with two career special-teams touchdowns in his collegiate portfolio, takes care of the football, and is an able pass blocker who also gets very high marks for his character and leadership.
PROJECTION: Gray doesn't have the dynamic qualities to warrant a premium pick, but he may be the best of the next tier of available backs due to his intangibles and ability to contribute in the passing game. Would make for a solid third-round choice.
6) ROBERT TURBIN, UTAH STATE
Height: 5-10; Weight: 222; Age (as of Sept. 1): 22
One of strongest backs of this year's contingent, Turbin excels at grinding out positive yards inside by utilizing his stocky frame, impressive power and natural balance, and his willingness to absorb contact also aids in pass protection. On the negative side, the 2011 WAC Offensive Player of the Year isn't a shifty runner with the acceleration or fluidity needed to break loose coming off the edge, and although he's built to handle a heavy workload as a No. 1 back, his injury history could be a potential red flag for teams. Turbin missed the entire 2010 season with a torn ACL and redshirted his freshman year because of a foot problem.
PROJECTION: If teams are comfortable Turbin will check out medically and can manage what will be a sizeable jump in competition, he could be a nice find in the third-round range.
7) LAMICHAEL JAMES, OREGON
Height: 5-8; Weight: 194; Age (as of Sept. 1): 22
The catalyst of an explosive Oregon offense that has carried the Ducks to three straight BCS bowl appearances, James has no equal in this class in terms of individual accomplishments. Whether the two-time All-American and 2010 Heisman finalist's incredible college production can translate to the pros remains to be seen, however. He's undersized and doesn't possess any semblance of power, was fumble-prone at times during his stellar three-year tenure at Oregon, and had some off-field concerns that teams may be wary of. On the other hand, he can accelerate and change directions in a flash and is dynamite in the open field, where his speed, elusiveness and outstanding instincts make him one of this draft's most dangerous playmakers in space.
PROJECTION: A second-round talent whose size restrictions may affect his overall draft stock. Though James may be resigned to a third-down back in the NFL, his home-run ability should enable him to be a useful contributor in the Darren Sproles mold.
SLEEPER: MICHAEL SMITH, UTAH STATE
Height: 5-9; Weight: 207; Age (as of Sept. 1): 24
Smith played behind Turbin in Utah State's high-caliber backfield but showed plenty of promise in his own right by averaging over seven yards per carry as a change-of-pace alternative, then raised his status with an exceptional performance at the Aggies' recent Pro Day in which he was reportedly clocked at 4.33 seconds in the 40-yard dash. Compact and strong with some quickness to match, the junior college transfer has the skills to be a serviceable NFL backup, though a limited body of work and a previous foot injury will cause teams to be cautious.
PROJECTION: An ascending player with good value in the fifth-to-sixth round area.