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Brown leads strong group of backs

4/12/2005

Here is how ESPN.com rates the top 11 running back prospects in the NFL draft:

Ronnie Brown (Auburn)
Vital statistics: 6 feet 0¼, 233 pounds, 4.43 in the 40.
Numbers game: Never started more than seven games in a season and rushed for 1,000 yards just once in college career. Carried 513 times for 2,707 yards and 28 touchdowns, with career best of 1,008 yards in 2002. Had 58 catches for 668 yards and two TDs, including 34 receptions in 2004. Earned all-SEC second-team honors in 2004 and was semifinalist for Doak Walker Award. Former high school baseball player, drafted by the Seattle Mariners but never signed.
Upside: Thick, fullback-style body but tailback-type speed and running skills. Great acceleration, can get to peak speed quickly, a real downhill-style runner. Powerful and will break tackles, can get into the secondary and run away from defenders. Finishes off every run. Superb receiver, wideout-caliber hands, makes nice adjustments and can catch the ball up the field. Willing and improving blocker. Solid character and team leader.
Downside: Mostly a straight-ahead runner and not particularly elusive. Lacks some instinct and suddenness and occasionally gets too upright. Doesn't have the pure vision most great backs possess. Has never been asked to be a workhorse and, at the college level, never logged more than 175 carries in a season.
The dish: Overshadowed for most of his career by Carnell "Cadillac" Williams, but in 2004 many scouts began to feel that he was the better NFL prospect, and he demonstrated in the postseason that, indeed, he might be. Might have the sparsest career numbers ever for a tailback who figures to be a top-five selection, but that won't stop someone from taking him very early in the proceedings.

Carnell "Cadillac" Williams (Auburn)
Vital statistics: 5 feet 10 7/8, 217 pounds, 4.43 in the 40.
Numbers game: Started in 27 of 42 appearances and rushed for 3,831 yards and 45 touchdowns on 741 attempts. Went over the 1,000-yard mark in both 2003 and 2004 and led team in rushing three times. Had 45 catches for 342 yards and one touchdown. Also returned 29 kickoffs for an average of 21.0 yards and 22 punts for an 11.4-yard average. Earned Alabama "Mr. Football" honors and was named a Parade Magazine All-American in high school. A 2004 consensus All-American and all-SEC choice. Semifinalist for the Doak Walker Award.
Upside: A slasher and cutback runner who can get through the small creases and pop out the other side. Superb vision, great feet, can pick and slide until he finds a hole, then accelerates into space. Decisive runner who isn't afraid to attack defenders. Stronger through the legs than he appears, doesn't mind contact and was used in short-yardage situations instead of bigger teammate Brown. Nifty and athletic, an electrifying game breaker who can beat you a lot of different ways. Probably the best instincts and awareness of any back in the draft. Has improved a bit as a receiver.
Downside: Lean but solid, but has experienced some injuries and durability remains a concern. A high-cut player. Tougher runner than most people expect him to be but still not a guy who will move the pile. Might not be able to handle 20 carries a game. Still needs to work on his receiving and blocking skills.
The dish: Scouts seem to be hot and cold on him in the past couple of weeks, but still a top-10 prospect and a pure playmaker who should make an impact as a rookie.

Cedric Benson (Texas)
Vital statistics: 5 feet 10½, 222 pounds, 4.53 in the 40.
Numbers game: One of only three players in NCAA history to rush for more than 5,000 yards and score more than 400 points in a career. Ranks second in school history with 6,161 all-purpose yards and is first Longhorns player to rush for 1,000 yards in four seasons and run for 12 or more touchdowns every year. Of his 49 appearances, 43 were starts, and he ran for 5,540 yards and 64 touchdowns on 1,112 carries. Added 69 catches for 621 yards and three touchdowns. Only 84 of his 1,112 rushes were for negative yardage and he gained 56 percent of his yards after initial contact. Rushed for 100 yards or more in 25 games, and Texas was undefeated in those contests. Drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 12th round in 2001, signed for $125,000 and played two seasons before quitting baseball. Won Doak Walker Award in 2004, when he also was a consensus All-American.
Upside: Tough, workhorse back who is accustomed to carrying 20-25 times a game and can erode defenses in the fourth quarter. Very durable and will play hurt. Runs with his pads under him and can power through arm tackles. Better feet than anticipated and has always displayed good cutback ability. Determined and decisive, squares up quickly, can deliver a blow. Can explode through a hole and create an opening when his blocking breaks down on him. Rarely tackled for a loss. Nice vision and balance, good hands, seems to be a willing blocker. In terms of career production, and body of work, the most proven tailback in the draft.
Downside: Hardly a plodder, but not nearly as quick footed as either of the Auburn backs and his speed is largely straight line. Has experienced some off-field problems, including a one-game suspension in 2002. After fumbling only eight times in first three seasons, he matched that total in 2004, including seven bobbles in one three-game stretch.
The dish: Hasn't had great offseason workouts, and his 40-yard times don't compare to those of the Auburn backs, but hard to ignore his career numbers. Has twice as many career rushes as Brown and nearly 400 more than Williams. Could get into the top five and should certainly be no worse than a top-10 selection.

J.J. Arrington (California)
Vital statistics: 5 feet 8 7/8, 214 pounds, 4.40 in the 40.
Numbers game: Burst onto the scene in 2004, leading the nation in rushing yards (2,018) and yards per carry (7.0), while running for 100-plus yards in every game. Rushed for most yards in the Pac-10 since Marcus Allen posted 2,427 yards in 1981. Started his career in junior college, at College of the Canyons, before transferring to California. In two seasons at Berkeley, rushed for 2,625 yards and 20 touchdowns on 396 carries and started in 13 of 25 appearances. Had 42 catches for 299 yards and three touchdowns. Was named an All-American in 2004.
Upside: Muscular and compact, a short man but certainly not a small man, and will often initiate contact. Can accelerate and burst quickly to the second level. Has demonstrated some slash and cutback ability. Very competitive and a hard worker.
Downside: Stopwatch speed is mostly straight line and doesn't always translate into niftiness, and he isn't nearly as elusive as he should be. At times, seems to lack awareness and vision and looks hesitant. Won't break many tackles. An average receiver at best, and his size could make blocking a problem for him. Has only had one big season.
The dish: Has some flaws, but it's hard to ignore the huge year he enjoyed in 2004 and he really helped himself at the scouting combine with a solid audition. A sure second-rounder.

Ciatrick Fason (Florida)
Vital statistics: 6 feet 0¾, 207 pounds, 4.56 in the 40.
Numbers game: Played in all 38 games possible during his three-year career with the Gators and started 15. Big season came in 2004, when he carried 222 times for 1,267 yards and 10 touchdowns and became the first Florida player since 1993 to lead the SEC in rushing yards. Finished his career with 1,877 yards and 14 touchdowns on 315 attempts. Also had 46 catches for 408 yards and five touchdowns, including 35 receptions in 2004. Was the Florida "Mr. Football" and a Parade Magazine All-American in high school.
Upside: Nicely built, thick through the thighs and calves, and can probably add another 10 pounds or so at the NFL level. A much better and more natural athlete than some of his measurables might indicate. Runs hard and with balance, finds the hole, and makes good decisions and cuts. Competitive and a hard worker. More quick than fast, but flashes better speed on the field than on a stopwatch. Very good receiver.
Downside: For as hard as he runs, doesn't break enough tackles, and sometimes seems to get tangled up in his own feet. Too often goes down on first contact. Not particularly elusive. Sometimes doesn't pick his feet up enough and gets tripped up in the trash at the line of scrimmage. Marginal blocker and will overextend at times reaching for people.
The dish: Solid second-rounder with enough talent and certainly sufficient work ethic to be an NFL starter someday.

Eric Shelton (Louisville)
Vital statistics: 6 feet 1½, 246 pounds, 4.53 in the 40.
Numbers game: Began his career at Florida State in 2001 and transferred to Louisville the next season because of crowded Seminoles depth chart. In three college seasons, ran for 1,858 yards and 30 touchdowns on 341 carries. Never rushed for 1,000 yards in a season, and biggest year was in 2004, when he gained 938 yards. Scored 20 touchdowns, many in short-yardage situations, last year. Has only 12 career starts, including just five in 2004. Former all-state track performer in high school.
Upside: Huge, thick body, but definitely a tailback and not a fullback. Patient runner who demonstrates innate ability to let blocking develop in front of him before turning upfield. Good vision and balance and doesn't get knocked off his feet, or driven sideways, by the first contact. Deceptively athletic, can turn his hips and redirect; flashes nice quickness.
Downside: A late bloomer who played mostly in a rotation system in college and has never carried the ball more than 166 times in a season. Not very elusive, won't get to the second level very often, yet isn't a pure power runner, either. Absorbs more hits than he should. Not polished as a receiver or blocker. Past neck problems bear examination.
The dish: An intriguing guy who is visiting with a lot of teams. Scouts will have to project just how big a workload he can handle.

Marion Barber III (Minnesota)
Vital statistics: 5 feet 11 3/8, 221 pounds, 4.48 in the 40.
Numbers game: Despite missing all of 2002 with a hamstring injury, played in 38 games and started 19, rushing for 3,276 yards and 35 touchdowns on 575 attempts. Ran for more than 1,000 yards in both 2003 and 2004 and scored 17 touchdowns in 2003. Caught 21 passes for 190 yards. Returned 23 kickoffs for 22.3-yard average and averaged 11.0 yards on 47 punt returns. In '03, teamed with Laurence Maroney to become only the 30th tandem in NCAA history to post 1,000 rushing yards in the same season.
Upside: Pure downhill runner with surprising ability to get to the corner. Natural body lean and finishes most of his runs. Solid lower body strength. Good balance and likes contact. A tough guy who is not bashful about delivering the first blow. Good athlete, with vertical jump in the 40-inch range, and accomplished receiver. Can contribute in the return game.
Downside: Won't break many long runs. Plays a little too high at times and seems to throttle down to make cutbacks. Doesn't play as fast as his stopwatch speed.
The dish: Probably could have used another year in school but has good bloodlines and still likely to be chosen in the second round.

Ryan Moats (Louisiana Tech)
Vital statistics: 5 feet 8¼, 210 pounds, 4.46 in the 40.
Numbers game: Played in 34 games, starting 22 of them, and finished career with 499 carries for 3,176 yards and 28 touchdowns. Career year came in 2004, when he rushed for 1,774 yards and 18 touchdowns and posted five games of 200-plus yards. Also gained more than 1,000 yards in 2003. Caught 48 passes for 441 yards and two TDs. Named the WAC offensive player of the year for 2004.
Upside: Competitive player with compact build, solid work ethic and ability to pile up carries without wearing down. Good but not great burst, seems to move well laterally, can get to the edge. Has gotten bigger and better every year and worked hard to develop his receiving skills in 2004. Has tested out well in offseason auditions.
Downside: Lack of size will always be a factor and, despite quick feet, doesn't have great top-end speed. Not a home run hitter and doesn't have power to break tackles. Will get knocked sideways a little too easily.
The dish: Should be a first-day choice and could develop into nice situational or change-of-pace back for the franchise that selects him.

Vernand Morency (Oklahoma State)
Vital statistics: 5 feet 9 3/8, 210 pounds, 4.66 in the 40.
Numbers game: Started only two games before 2004 but demonstrated last season that he can carry a heavy workload. Ran for 1,474 yards and 12 touchdowns while starting 10 games. Finished career with 451 carries for 2,661 yards and 23 TDs. Had 11 catches for 119 yards and averaged 22.4 yards on 10 kickoff returns. Appeared in 30 games for his career. Played three seasons in the Colorado Rockies' minor-league system after being a 14th-round choice in the 1998 draft.
Upside: More explosive runner than his 40-yard times indicate. Explosive out of his stance, sees the hole nicely, get to the crease well. Willing to pound the ball inside and seems to get better the more carries he logs. Initiates contact.
Downside: Some off-field problems, and age will be a concern, as he is already 25. A little stiff looking, runs too tall at times. Hasn't been asked to catch the ball very often and, while a willing blocker, needs work in that area.
The dish: Tough player with talent; too bad he isn't a couple of years younger. Should still be a first-day choice.

Kay-Jay Harris (West Virginia)
Vital statistics: 6 feet 0 3/8, 243 pounds, 4.55 in the 40.
Numbers game: One of the most itinerant players in the draft. Enrolled at the University of Miami, then signed a baseball contract with the Texas Rangers for a $125,000 signing bonus and played three seasons in the minors before giving up. Attended Garden City (Kan.) Community College to resurrect his football career, then transferred to West Virginia in 2003. Started in just six of 23 appearances. Carried 256 times for 1,483 yards and 14 touchdowns, with most of that production coming in 2004. Had 25 receptions for 292 yards and three touchdowns. Former all-state track star in high school and won four state titles in the long jump. Second-team all-Big East in 2004.
Upside: Wide frame and good lower-body definition. Good quickness for such a big back. Patient runner who will glide into the hole.
Downside: Soft body through the middle. Weight has been a problem in the past. Not shifty, and rarely makes the first tackler miss. Doesn't outrun defender in the secondary. Some injury concerns. Already 26 years old.
The dish: Age and suspect conditioning could drop him out of the first day.

Frank Gore (Miami)
Vital statistics: 5 feet 9 5/8, 212 pounds, 4.65 in the 40.
Numbers game: Carried 348 times for 1,975 yards and 17 touchdowns and caught 23 passes for 225 yards for career. Best season was in 2004, when he ran for 945 yards and eight touchdowns on 197 attempts. Tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in 2001 and, after sitting out 2002 to rehabilitate, tore the right ACL late in the '03 season. Before the injuries, considered a better tailback prospect than either Clinton Portis or Willis McGahee. Bypassed his final year of eligibility, in part, because his mother needs a kidney transplant and he must deal with medical expenses.
Upside: Naturally strong and well defined through the upper body. Possesses nice vision and has good instincts. Good lateral quickness.
Downside: The knee surgeries have robbed him of burst and long speed and, obviously, durability is a concern. Not asked to catch the ball or block very much in college.
The dish: Worth a gamble in the third or fourth round, but might never be the player he was before the knee injuries.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.