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Speed bump

Posted Feb 25, 2013

The NFL Scouting Combine is veering and jumping and drilling into its last day and there has been hardly a word about the running backs, which may be a boon for the Bengals in the April 25-27 draft.

The NFL Scouting Combine is veering and jumping and drilling into its last day and there has been hardly a word about the running backs, which may be a boon for the Bengals in the April 25-27 draft.

The 40-yard dash times from the weekend confirmed what the scouts know. There isn't a big-time back that can do it all with top-end speed and the speed backs are few and more than 40 yards between. And Alabama's Eddie Lacy looks to be the only thing standing between the draft and its first first round without a running back in five decades.

But there are also scouts convinced that there are still a lot of productive, durable backs that are fast enough and big enough to have solid NFL careers. Remember, Colts general manager Ryan Grigson selected 800-yard rusher Vick Ballard in the fifth round convinced he played at 4.55 speed "and that's fast enough."

Two backs ran better than 4.45 at the Combine, 5-11, 227-pound Knile Davis from Arkansas, who had 13 career fumbles, and Auburn’s 168-pound Onterio McCalebb.

"No one separated themselves and no one has exceptional speed," said one AFC scout of the 40 times. "But the production of this class is very good and history shows that one of these guys is going to be in the NFL's top five in rushing next year. That's just the way it goes.

"The 40 times are probably going to be overblown and that may mean they get pushed down. Maybe that means (Lacy) is the only one in the first round and instead of five going in the second round, only three go."

Theoretically that should help the Bengals in their search for The BenJarvus Green-Ellis Complement since they hold three of the draft's first 53 picks in the first two rounds. And with at least one extra compensatory pick estimated to be coming at next month's owners meetings, it wouldn't be stunning if the Bengals came out of this thing with two backs since Bernard Scott and Brian Leonard are free agents.

Even then, some boards have a dearth of backs in the first two rounds. After canvassing NFL personnel people, Milwaukee's Journal-Sentinel put only two backs in its top 55 with Wisconsin's Montee Ball joining Lacy. Pro Football Weekly projects only Lacy, Ball and Michigan State's Le'veon Bell in the first two rounds. Rob Rang of CBSSports.com says the best two complete backs are Lacy and Oklahoma State's Joseph Randle, but Randle's 4.63 40 probably won't help him.

While the conventional wisdom is that the Bengals seek a burner and pass catcher to offset the grinding Green-Ellis, that doesn't hold up among some scouts and pundits. The image of the specialty speed back that can take it to the house on any play, says former NFL general manager Bill Polian, is a bit overdone.

"The specialty backs are beginning to be phased out a little bit because those guys block defensive ends and blitzing linebackers," Polian said over the weekend in Indianapolis. "That's a little bit more difficult. Darren Sproles can do it, but not every little guy can do it. You've got to be careful of that. If you release him then the tight end has to stay in and block."

If you think the 6-0, 220-pound Lacy, the 5-11, 210-pound Ball, and the 6-2, 235-pound Bell provide more blue-collar BJGE than fleet Bernard Scott, you're right. But Polian says in this day and age, that's OK. The man who once loved those tiny backs who could fly for the Colts sees a much tougher game.

And is it time for the Bengals to join in the two-back tandem approach that has caught on in much of the NFL?

In the last three seasons, the combined 872 carries of Green-Ellis and Cedric Benson are second only to the 956 of Houston's Arian Foster in the NFL for the most rushes by a back since 2010, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Atlanta's Michael Turner is next at 857, followed by Baltimore's Ray Rice with 855, Tennessee's Chris Johnson with 854, and Steven Jackson of St. Louis with 847.

"I'd look for a complete back. What BenJarvus does is fine. When you chart during the course of the season on any club the number of 10-yard runs a running back makes is miniscule," Polian said. "Even the best of them are in the seven to 12 range on average. The idea of a home-run hitter is little bit of a myth. So what? (With Green-Ellis) the chains move, don't they? And time goes off the clock."

When former Bengals running backs coach Jim Anderson scouted his final Senior Bowl last month, he made the point that the top two backs have to be as close as possible to a complete back in case one of them gets hurt and Polian couldn't agree more.

"In today's NFL the special back is the third back, not the second guy. The second guy has to replicate the first guy because nobody plays with one back anymore. You can't do it. The pounding is too great," Polian said. "I'm not enamored (of the speed backs) like I used to be. I used to be a big fan of those guys. As time went on, it always came down to, 'Can this guy block?' Because we're not keeping (tight end) Dallas Clark in to block. The back has to block."

The option the Bengals have is going with a complete back early, say in the second or third round, and then coming back later for some speed. Bu they'll have to decide if he would be able to beat out Cedric Peerman and his average of five yards per his 39 career carries. (Count his two runs for 80 yards off fake punts and it is 6.7).

Rang says Oregon's Kenjon Barner could be there in the fifth round, but he ran only a 4.52 Sunday. Fresno State's Robert Rouse, a 5-5, 186-pounder, may have run himself into free agency with a 4.8. North Carolina's Giovani Bernard ran a 4.53, but he's got good hands and is a good punt returner. Yet he could be gone in the third round. Clemson's Andre Ellington, 5-9, 197 pounds, is supposed to be this draft's home-run hitter but he singled at the Combine with a 4.61.

"That's surprising. After watching him on tape, I would have thought he would have run faster than that," says the AFC scout. "The toughest position to evaluate next to quarterback is running back. Is he a great back because of his line or because who he's playing against? It's a combination of just not speed, but the ability to run through tackles and have good enough vision to find holes."

But if the scouts and pundits disagree on what makes a good back, they do agree on this:

"There's a lot of good NFL backs in this draft," The AFC scout says. "Just look at last year when there was one in almost every round."

"You've got to look hard to find the right guy," Polian says. "But they're there."

 

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