Evaluating the NFL draft's top four running backs

Pittsburgh Connecticut FootballThe most important element when evaluating college running backs is to look beyond statistics and production, but rather to how their skills and attributes project to the NFL game.

Case in point from one year ago: Darren McFadden and Chris Johnson. What you see below is the bullet-point version of my more extensive scouting report on McFadden:

# His game is speed and acceleration. Vertically explosive.

# Lacks elusiveness and lateral quickness.

# Not a punishing, physical runner for his size. Runs like a 185-pound back.

# Runs with a narrow base. Goes down easy. Collapses upon contact.

# Did not exhibit great balance and body control.

# Not a natural runner with vision and instincts.

# Did not consistently show the ability to make the unblocked defender miss.

Here was my abridged evaluation of Johnson:

# A better runner than McFadden. Same burst with more toughness and much better lateral agility and body control.

# His one-cut explosiveness made it difficult for defenders to get clean shots, even on inside runs.

Willing to run inside. Won’t move people because of his weight and frame, but did show that he would run the ball up the gut. Runs with a physical style without being physical.

My point is simple: It’s about the NFL, not the NCAA.

With that as the foundation, let’s focus on Ohio State’s Chris Wells, Georgia’s Knowshon Moreno, Pitt’s LeSean McCoy and UConn’s Donald Brown:

Chris ‘Beanie’ Wells

Wells is the most intriguing of the top four prospects. He weighed 235 pounds at the NFL Scouting Combine but does look like a big back on film. He runs like a smaller, quicker man with lateral agility and explosiveness, short-area burst and acceleration, all necessary attributes to thrive on Sundays.

Those clearly are positives as he transitions to the NFL, yet there is a negative hiding in plain sight. A 235-pound back must be physical. Wells does not run to his weight. His style is that of a 205-pound back.

He is not strong and powerful, and even more troublesome as I watched game after game on film, is a strong impression that he does not run hard all the time. That’s an issue of mental toughness, and that cannot be taught. That should be a significant red flag for any GM believing Wells can be the focus of his team’s offense.

Knowshon Moreno

Moreno has no issues whatsoever with toughness and competitiveness. At Georgia, he was a sturdy downhill runner with vision, quickness and balance. Yet he is not smooth and fluid in movements, but more mechanical and herky-jerky. He shows lateral agility and elusiveness, but it is more manufactured than effortless.

Two things about Moreno as he projects to the NFL: One, he lacks the burst and acceleration to get to the perimeter; he’s a one-speed runner who lacks that second gear. Secondly, and this might be the most critical point: While Moreno is physical, aggressive and tough, he is not strong or powerful. That’s an essential distinction that GMs must recognize.

Moreno is not the kind of back who can be the centerpiece of an NFL offense, like the Vikings’ Adrian Peterson or Falcons’ Michael Turner. Moreno must be more of a complementary player, a la the Colts’ Joseph Addai in the Peyton Manning-driven offense, or the Eagles’ Brian Westbrook in a pass-first scheme. If a team drafts Moreno with that understanding, it will get a multi-dimensional back with excellent receiving skills, a willingness to pass block and an inherent toughness that clearly defines him as a player.

LeSean McCoy

McCoy will transition to the NFL in much the same way as Moreno. Here’s my scouting report on McCoy: Natural quickness, feet always moving, no wasted steps, decisive cuts, good instincts, has lateral skills demanded of NFL backs.

McCoy, however, will fit best in a two-back system because of his lack of natural power and his upright running style.

McCoy is physical and tough, more than willing to run hard inside. Like Moreno, though, McCoy is not strong or powerful. But he did show the ability to get through small cracks at the point of attack, to “get skinny” as we like to say. Overall, he’s a more natural runner than Moreno, smoother, more laterally explosive with a second gear Moreno lacks.

Donald Brown

You put on the tape of Brown, and the first thing that jumps out is his economy of movement. He’s patient yet decisive, composed yet sudden. He embodies that old John Wooden staple: “Be quick, but don’t hurry.”

Brown shows excellent lateral agility and quickness, with outstanding change of direction. And what I really like is his intuitive knack for creating room and space in a confined area at the point of attack. That’s so important in projecting a running back to the NFL, and it cannot be coached.

Another critical attribute that consistently shows up is Brown’s feel for “pressing the hole.” He instinctively attacks downhill to dictate defensive movement, which sets up his blocks and produces running lanes.

Brown reminds me at times of the Cowboys’ Felix Jones, the No. 22-overall pick last year. Both possess that smooth and graceful lateral quickness, although Jones is more naturally explosive. But the movement traits are similar.

Brown’s array of skills transition best to the NFL. He is not the physical talent Wells is, given the size difference and the similar skill set, but Brown’s toughness and competitiveness play-after-play far surpass Wells’ glaring inconsistencies in effort and production.

One axiom almost always holds true when evaluating college players: If unpredictable effort is a problem on Saturdays, it will remain an issue — and likely get worse, on Sundays.